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Anita Brookner 1928-

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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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

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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

Incidents in the Rue Laugier (novel) 1996

Altered States (novel) 1997

Soundings (criticism) 1997

Visitors (novel) 1998

Falling Slowly (novel) 1999

William McPherson (review date 10 February 1985)

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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.

Anita Brookner is no Agatha Christie; more of a Virginia Woolf, whom her protagonist looks like, or a Henry James—although without their grandeur—concerned less with the act itself, whatever that may be and it can usually be simply stated, than with the mystery surrounding it, the mystery of human relationships, which, in the classier fiction of which this is an example, can never be simply stated, only demonstrated. Often the writer doesn't know the real secret either, only that there is one. In real art as in real life, few things are ever all wrapped up. And this book—austere, subtle, controlled, and reminiscent of the work of that French neo-classical painter Jacques Louis David—is art of a small but special kind. (The author herself is an authority on 18th- and 19th-century painting and teaches at the Courtauld Institute in London.)

Edith Hope—too intelligent to have an excess of that virtue and too human to have lost it altogether—is “a writer of romantic fiction under a more thrusting name” (Vanessa Wilde, which is indeed more “thrusting”), a woman approaching 40, in love with a married man who takes her rather for granted, capable and cool and reserved on the surface—the kind of woman who might easily blend into the woodwork if the woodwork were of a very fine, classical quality. In her novels, a mixture as she says of “fantasy and obfuscation,” she explores “the question of what behavior most becomes a woman.” It's a question she herself is exploring as she spends her period of penance and exile at the Hotel du Lac, the setting of the novel, “a house of repute, a traditional establishment, used to welcoming the prudent, the well-to-do, the retired, the self-effacing.” Not the sort of place a person would go to kick up his heels, in other words, or even for a very good time. One would like Edith to have a good time.

Like the women in her novels, she is a romantic and heartbroken. In her novels, however, broken hearts are mended happily. Edith believes in her novels, or would like to, where “it is the mouse-like unassuming girl who gets the hero, while the scornful temptress with whom he has had a stormy affair retreats baffled from the fray, never to return. The tortoise wins every time. That is a lie, of course…. In real life … it is the hare who wins. Every time…. The facts of life are too terrible to go into my kind of fiction.”

Some day, maybe. “She had told herself as much, many times, but had been able to dismiss her own verdict. Now she recognized the voice of authority, as if she had heard an illness confirmed, although she had almost succeeded in persuading herself that she was only imagining the symptoms.” The voice of authority was the voice of a suitor who wants her as a wife but does not want the burden of her feelings, a man who believes that “the light touch sometimes, nearly always, in fact, is more effective than the deepest passion,” and who when she weeps says, “Please don't cry. I cannot bear to see a woman cry; it makes me want to hit her.” (Fortunately he doesn't, opting, I suppose, for the light touch.) Later Edith realizes: “When she had leaned against him and wept, and when he had put his arm around her, she had been aware that he felt nothing. That he had returned her to herself most gracefully, but he had felt nothing.”

That, of course, is not enough. At the end of this intelligent, witty, carefully crafted and sometimes surprising novel, Edith has been most gracefully returned to herself. That doesn't seem quite enough, either. One wishes that she had gotten a bit out of herself. There were times, in fact, when I wanted her suitor to belt her, or for her to belt him. A little less grace, perhaps, and a little more passion. As I said, one longs for Edith to have some fun, but perhaps that would not be true to the life portrayed here. It would, in any event, be another novel.

The facts of life may be too terrible to go into the kind of fiction Edith writes, but they are not too terrible for her creator's, and they are grim indeed, grim and gray. In fact, grayness is everywhere: in the garden, in the hotel, on the lake, in the mists of the season, in Edith's wedding dress, in her room “the color of over-cooked veal,” in the man without feelings: everywhere. There are, of course, many, many shades of gray, and Anita Brookner seems to have explored the full range. Still, one can't help but long for a splash of vivid color.

Robert Jones (review date 20 September 1985)

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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 primarily science fiction for the lovelorn, and, as pacifiers, they satisfy our most powerful, juvenile fantasies that there will always be rescue from danger and the promise of redemptive love. If this is specious as fantasy, it goes a long way, like being read Mother Goose as a child, to helping one sleep at night.

But should a Victoria Holt or a Mary Stewart, the two best and most dependable writers of popular romance, ever develop pretensions to award-winning seriousness, or should they dress their clichés in literary allusions and ponderous prose, they would instantly be transfigured into the persona of Anita Brookner, one of the United Kingdom's most successful recent exports.

In Brookner's latest novel, Edith Hope, a writer of romantic fiction under the nom de plume of Vivienne Wilde, flees England in disgrace for the Hotel du Lac. She leaves a spurned fiancé and a married lover in her wake. The idea for Hotel du Lac is a brilliant one. To have a writer of romantic fiction overwhelmed by her own failures in love could be a fruitful, ironic ground to question the passionate excesses to which we are all victim. But the ability to play the pat world of gothic romance off against the messier confines of real life would require a sensibility that sees human behavior with insight and irony. After she won the Booker Prize for the best novel of the year, Brookner was quoted in the English press as suggesting that her humor derived from the seventeenth century. This may indeed be the case. But to those of us in the twentieth century without access to a post-Renaissance wit, Hotel du Lac seems humorless to the point of perversity.

Edith Hope has the leisure to reflect upon what she wants out of life during her sojourn at the Hotel du Lac. She nearly succumbs to the loveless proposal of one of her fellow guests, until she witnesses him making a predawn exit from another woman's suite. And so she returns to England, alone. It is not Edith's oft repeated desire for the “lure of domestic peace” that is troubling; it is the sense in the novel that Brookner believes she is making significant statements about human motivation. Edith Hope is the stereotypical English spinster, the one whose emotional life is as tightly coiled as the hair she predictably wears wound into a French bun. We are bored by the secrets of her past before we discover them. We know that even the skeletons rattling in Edith's closet are bound to be respectable ones and that we have encountered them innumerable times before. To make Edith “modern,” Brookner adds a whiff of female emancipation at the novel's end, as if the idea of a woman living independently occurred to her in a revelatory fever.

Hotel du Lac teeters under the puniness of its ideas. It presumes to be about love, but it is more rightly about the compulsion to be respectable. Even Brookner's adjectives are somber: grey and pale countenances abound, as do variations of the term “Bloomsburian” to describe the drawn lines of Edith's face. Edith Hope likes nothing better than to be mistaken for Virginia Woolf. And it is Brookner's misreading of Woolf to think that if she writes constricted descriptions of landscapes and sunsets which ceaselessly provoke Edith to fits of reverie, she, too, will be mistaken for Virginia Woolf. But the cumulative effect of the stock characters and the lifeless prose only serves to exaggerate Brookner's distance from her idols. If she has a parallel in English literature, we should not look to Virginia Woolf, but to Mrs. Humphrey Ward, that purveyor of countless volumes of pretentious Victorian entertainments.

There is a bogus quality to Brookner's writing that is apparent from the first page where we find the image of a lake spreading out like an anesthetic. This metaphor is meant to set the tone of the novel, but it is unnervingly similar to the idea Eliot used to rather notable effect in “Prufrock.” It may seem niggling to object to a parallel between “anesthetized” and “etherized” seventy years after the fact, but I think this mirroring of Eliot is significant in terms of Brookner's limitations as a writer. She wants desperately to be taken seriously, yet there is not a single original idea or image in her work. Eliot's opening to “Prufrock” is not the sort of image that ever enters the library of available metaphors to be checked out by writers needing a quick fix of inspiration; it is too personal and too jarring. Nor does Brookner's “borrowing” suggest the playful allusions used frequently by someone like Joyce. It is one of those curious instances where an image, a description, or even a word “belongs” to a writer and its use by anyone else seems derivative or gratuitous at best. Brookner raises one's suspicions from the first page, and we trust her again only because the territory she levels continues to clang with familiar associations. Her references to the most renowned writers of the century, either directly or by image, seem designed to stake her own claim to membership in that tradition, as if she might sneak in by association since she has done her homework. But in doing this, Brookner leaves herself open to criticism that goes beyond that usually reserved for popular fiction.

Hotel du Lac has been immensely popular because it masks our most sentimental instincts in an aura of seriousness. It can be read guiltlessly on the subway without a brown wrapper to hide its cover. But for all of her quiet talk about seeking the simple routine of a house in the country so that she might write, Brookner through Edith supplies the much scorned reader who lies awake at night reading romances with a more literate version. Hotel du Lac panders to the sentimentality of every undergraduate majoring in English literature: to find a Leonard to play to one's Virginia.

Hotel du Lac is the kind of fiction that often wins awards because it gives the illusion of being “literary” without unsettling us by its vision or eliciting any response but a sigh of received ideas. In this regard, Brookner is very much like Anne Tyler on our own shores. At one point in the novel, Edith exclaims, “the facts of life are too terrible to go into my kind of fiction. And my readers certainly do not want them there.” This sentiment is true enough for Barbara Cartland, but it is inappropriate for anyone who pretends to believe in the necessity of writing fiction. There is nothing in Hotel du Lac which gives the impression that Anita Brookner feels any different about writing than Vivienne Wilde, references to Virginia Woolf notwithstanding. Just as one cannot lie awake at night and dream of rescue by a handsome stranger with any hope of realization, one cannot wish oneself to seriousness as a writer. No matter how many frogs Anita Brookner kisses in her scavenging of English literature, she will not, on the basis of Hotel du Lac, conjure her prince.

Patricia Waugh (essay date 1989)

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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 centuries as looking glasses possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of man at twice its normal size’ (A Room of One's Own). Brookner's women function very much as looking-glasses, while longing, at the same time, to cry out, passionately and unrestrainedly: ‘Look at me!’ Their moral strengths function as weakness in the patriarchal, consumerist, and acquisitive world of the post-1960s, and they themselves internalize this disparaging view of their qualities, resulting in a perpetually low self-esteem. As Jean Baker Miller argues: ‘Dominants are usually convinced that the way things are is right and good, not only for them but especially for the subordinates. All morality confirms this view, and all social structure sustains it'. Like Mrs Ramsay and Clarissa Dalloway, Brookner's characters are compelled to resolve their ego boundary confusion through repressive or self-destructive patterns of behaviour. Similarly also, their actions often imitate the aesthetic options open to their author, as art and literature are explored as possible routes to imaginary wholeness. Unlike Woolf, however, Brookner seems to imply that their fate, like their identity, is sealed and fixed, and only resignation or neurosis are offered as ways of dealing with this ‘truth’….

Anita Brookner, like Drabble, rejects easy solutions to social inequality, but unlike Drabble has explicitly distanced herself from feminism. She has argued that her best-known novel, Hotel du Lac [1984], was meant ‘as a love story pure and simple: love triumphed over temptation. The ideal of love. Basically I don't like adversarial positions. I see no need for them, since life is too complicated and is rarely just'. Yet her novel persistently, though implicitly, undermines the romantic ideal in spite of its author's intentions, revealing the profoundly conflicting needs both catered for and reinforced by romance. Edith Hope, the central character, is herself a writer of romances which are a plea for the acceptance of traditional courtship and marriage, but in her own life she reveals that these institutions cannot ultimately satisfy her own emotional and intellectual needs. Edith tends to blame herself, however, seeing her ‘innate disposition’ as the source of her exclusion from wedded bliss. She feels unable, therefore, to identify with those women who seek to change the institutional basis of romance, and her writing seeks to contain protest, to protect her liberal view of the fatalistic working out of human character. Brookner's novel as a whole, however, fails to suppress the contradictions inherent in this position.

Janice A. Radway has suggested the following reasons for the popularity of romance:

Romance reading supplements the avenues traditionally open to women for emotional gratification by supplying them vicariously with the attention and nurturance they do not get enough of in the round of day-to-day existence. It counter-valuates because the story opposes the female values of love and personal interaction to the male values of competition and public achievement and, at least in ideal romances, demonstrates the triumph of the former over the latter.

Romance reading and writing might be seen, therefore, as a collectively elaborated female ritual through which women explore the consequences of their common social condition as the appendages of men and attempt to imagine a more perfect state where all the needs they so intensely feel and accept as given could be adequately addressed.

Edith is herself aware of such reasons, though she views them as part of the innate disposition of women. As she reminisces at the hotel on her failure to go through with the marriage to Geoffrey, we are given a flashback to an earlier episode where she had lunched with her publisher and discussed the psychological dynamics of romance reading. He has suggested to Edith that her market is changing: ‘It's sex for the young woman executive now, the Cosmopolitan reader, the girl with the executive briefcase'. Edith, however, disagrees, claiming that women still prefer the ‘old myths', that romance is a form of consolatory gratification, and that her readers ‘want to believe that they are going to be discovered, looking their best, behind closed doors, just when they thought that all was lost, by a man who has battled across continents, abandoning whatever he may have had in his in-tray, to reclaim them'. Edith writes out of her own psychological compulsions, finding her identity dependent upon the ‘daily task of fantasy and obfuscation', and yet, in a letter to David at the end of the novel, asserting what is for her both the truth and a romantic fiction: ‘I believed every word I wrote. And I still do'.

Edith's writing is produced out of her own ambivalent feelings about femininity and an implicit though repressed recognition that what society offers to women in the form of marriage cannot satisfy both their need for autonomy and their need for connection. She is fascinated at the Hotel du Lac by the spectacle of pre-oedipal regression and ‘ultra-femininity’ paraded to the world in the figures of Mrs Pusey and her daughter Jennifer, whose main concern in life is shopping for ‘pretty things’ (‘A woman owes it to herself to have pretty things. And if she feels good she looks good. That's what I tell Jennifer. I always see to it that she's fitted out like a queen…. She loves her silly mother, don't you darling?’). Edith is both mesmerized and repelled by what she sees as this female ‘will to repletion and to triumph', their ‘avidity, grossness, ardour', and the implicit threat to the gratification of her own desires which their voracious appetites carry. She responds similarly to the seductive lingerie bought for herself by the 80-year-old Mrs Pusey and to the vaguely obscene ‘gamine’ attire of the fleshly and voluptuous 40-year-old Jennifer. Yet Edith regards Mrs Pusey as an ‘enchantress’ and is haunted by the image of the embrace of mother and daughter, ‘a physical closeness … that surpassed anything Edith had ever known'. Jennifer, she perceives, is simply an extension of the monstrous needs and desires of her mother,

so much a reflection of her mother that although she occupied quite a large space and had a curiously insistent physical presence, she did not have too much to say for herself, and indeed Edith had once or twice had the impression that behind the large smiling face Jennifer was somewhere else.

Edith's memories of her own mother are set against this spectacle: a woman, rejecting, slatternly, so utterly defeated and frustrated by life that eventually she had taken to her bed in disgust—as her sexual attractiveness dwindled—and required Edith to serve her as if she were an invalid. Compared to the soft, frilly, perfumed effusiveness of Mrs Pusey, her own East European mother is remembered as ‘punishingly corseted, with badly pencilled eyebrows, and large, hard bosoms', railing against her fate and projecting her anger against the female lot on to her ‘pale, silent daughter'. Edith, pondering this, wonders what has brought her to the Hotel du Lac, out of season, with its oppressive grey skies and respectability, and its mainly hopeless and lonely clientele. She recognizes that her writing of romances has functioned as a means of displacing repressed desires and memories too painful and complex to acknowledge. She remembers the childhood feeling after her father died of being ‘vividly unsafe', and admits the possibility that her romance stories are acts of reparation to the mother who comforted herself with tales of love and whose ‘fantasies … taught me about reality'.

Thus Edith starts to accept that her legacy from the mother is a deeply ambivalent attitude towards other women and her own femininity, a confusion as to what constitutes ‘a proper woman': ‘I am harsh because I remember Mother and her unkindnesses and because I am continually on the alert for more. But women are not all like Mother, and it is really stupid of me to imagine that they are'.

Edith sees so far. What she fails to grasp, however, is the extent to which her ideal of love and her relations with men are determined by her unresolved need and fear of connection, as well as the extent to which her view of women as voracious and gross in their appetites is a consequence of her own obsession with denial and control of emotional need. Repeatedly, she refers to herself as someone who has not grown up, experiencing with pleasure the image in her mirror as she twists her hair up before the wedding: ‘She looked elegant, controlled. Grown up, she thought. At last’. Obsessively, she seeks an acceptable image of ‘grown-up’ femininity, viewing Mr Neville's calculating and rationalized marriage plan as offering one such possibility. She imagines, as his wife, an identity based upon social position, rather than one based on what she perceives as the compulsive displacement of regressive fantasies in her vocation as writer. Thus she writes to David (her married lover), to inform him of the offer of marriage and her acceptance and intention to be a ‘good wife': ‘I will very soon, under his guidance, develop into the sort of acceptable woman whose confidence and stamina and indeed presumption I have always envied. Rather like your wife, in fact'. That she will have, continuously, to repress her great emotional need for love, connection, intimacy, in such a ‘business’ partnership, seems preferable to Edith to what she sees as an inevitable decline into the uncontrollable, insatiable neediness of the ageing woman, displayed so differently in both her own mother and in Mrs Pusey. The Puseys fascinate and repel Edith because she sees in them a reflection, monstrous and overwhelming, of her own desire for possession and love.

Femininity is again perceived in the Puseys in the negative terms of fleshliness: Mrs Pusey in her appetite for possession, her compulsive need to shop, and consumption of objects, food, people, and Jennifer with her plump body squeezed into fashionable ‘gamine’ clothes and expressing, above all, latency, ‘uninformed voluptuousness', despite her 40 years. What both suggest, in fact, is a caricature of femininity which is close to the infant's view of the mother as an all-encompassing physicality which must later be controlled and denied. Edith herself experiences femininity as uncontrollability and seeks in a man, through the partnership of marriage, some measure of control and social rationalization of feeling. Marriage to Mr Neville thus presents itself as an escape both from loneliness and from the terror of identification with the inchoate and the insatiable.

That Edith experiences herself in terms of diffuseness and lack of autonomy is emphasized throughout the novel. She has politely removed herself to the Hotel du Lac to please others, because she was not ‘herself', just as she had allowed her ‘friend’ Penelope to choose the colour scheme for the marital bedroom, bowing to her greater experience with men and her assurance—'You have to recognize his needs'. Edith writes in order to separate inner from outer: ‘the main purpose of [writing] … was to distance those all too real circumstances over which she could exert no control'. As the novel opens, the understated tone refers to Edith's ‘unfortunate lapse', the almost eighteenth-century measured sentences promise order and containment, and yet the weather remains ‘distressingly beyond control'. In fact, Edith experiences the greyness of the Hotel du Lac as an objective correlative for her own state of mind, and, though she asserts throughout the need for distance, in fact the novel reveals her inability to separate inner and outer. When the uproar arises from the Puseys’ room (on the night when presumably Mrs Pusey has caught ‘little’ Jennifer in flagrante delicto), Edith feels responsible for the external chaos because she has spent the night in a state of inner turmoil: ‘she felt as if her grief and terror had been unleashed by her long night of introspection and that she must now be called to account whenever and wherever damage might be done and atonement might be made'.

Edith fears she has released the ‘uncontrollable’ contents of her own mind upon the external world, and now she must make reparation. Significantly, the only other woman in the hotel with whom she feels comfortable is Monica, who, inhumanly thin and disgusted by the Puseys’ vulgar consumption, suffers from an ‘eating disorder'. She too, like Edith, has been removed to the hotel as an ‘incomplete’ woman, one who has failed to please, for Monica has not provided her husband with the required sons and heirs. Her refusal to eat and her violent feelings towards the Puseys suggest that she, like Edith, experiences a deep ambivalence towards femininity itself, her refusal to eat signifying, unconsciously, a protest at the impossible alternatives offered to women.

Monica's experience of marriage as a vehicle through which her husband can ensure the continuity of his lineage is little removed, in fact, from what is offered to Edith in the two proposals she receives. She will, in return for a social position with a ‘name', provide for the particular needs of men from whom an admission of even the existence of such needs would deeply threaten their sense of male identity. For Geoffrey, she will simply substitute for the recently deceased mother as provider of nurturance and emotional stability, and for Mr Neville she will provide ‘respectability’ while he pursues his sexual pleasures elsewhere. For this she will give up her freedom of choice, her garden, her writing, and even her own bedspread. Geoffrey will install her in ‘the marital bed in Montagu Square, where [he] had formerly lived with his mother', and Mr Neville will hand over to her the cleaning of his expensive china while he seeks sexual pleasure presumably with non-threatening, ‘adolescent’ girl-women like Jennifer. Edith, Mr Neville feels, will be an excellent business proposition, a ‘sleeping partner’ (in effect) who will not undermine his masculinity by eloping, as his wife did, with a younger man. Edith will be another possession; she will ‘gratify the original monolithic infant wish for ownership of a woman’ (Dinnerstein 1976, pp. 49–50), but she will remain safely under control along with Mr Neville's feelings.

Ironically, Mr Neville shares many of Edith's unconscious feelings that women are emotionally insatiable, narcissistic, requiring continuous flattery and devotion. He informs Edith that he has had enough of the emotional drain of battling for ownership under these conditions, ‘knocking’ other men down … one gets no work done'. Edith is partially attracted to the ‘control’ offered by marriage to Mr Neville, though his desire for control is clearly sadistic and misogynist. She feels that by marrying she will become ‘a proper woman', will gain self-control and ‘grow up', but the price of this is the loss of autonomy, of precisely that selfhood over which she seeks control. Both states therefore involve a sense of infantilization: it is simply not possible within the available social terms and practices to ‘grow up’ and be a ‘proper woman’ at the same time. Brookner never offers any explicit feminist critique of marriage, but the social and psychological contradictions which determine Edith's choice are made manifestly clear throughout the novel, even if its author does dismiss it as simply a ‘love story'.

In fact, all of Brookner's novels explore the infantilizing effects of family life on women. In her first novel, A Start in Life [1981], Ruth Weiss, ‘greedy for books’ yet like Edith recognizing that her ‘life had been ruined by literature', seeks through words the comfort she never received as a child. Her parents, volatile, narcissistic, and irresponsible, ‘play’ at being adults, expecting support and nurturance from the child they have failed to nature themselves. Looking into her mother's face, Ruth recognizes that ‘lost and petulant air that [she] remembered from her childhood and which seemed to turn the mother into the child and the child into the mother'. Fearful of growing old, and by profession an actress, Ruth's mother masquerades in the perpetual role of ‘little girl', requiring a continuous narcissistic confirmation of her attractiveness from those around her whom she regards as her ‘audience'. When summoned to the school because of concern about Ruth, she brushes anxieties aside: ‘“She can do whatever she likes, of course. But don't turn my baby into a blue-stocking.” She smiled the enchanting smile. “You know how it puts men off”’. Ruth, however, has never been a ‘baby’, and this is one of the reasons why she becomes what her mother considers a ‘blue-stocking’, seeking in the consolatory plots of literary tradition ‘the sound of the most beautiful words a girl could hear: “Cinderella shall go to the ball”’. School dinners replace maternal nurturance, providing comfort in ‘the form of baked beans and sausages, stewed prunes and custard', just as later she greedily ‘consumes’ books, feeling in the college library ‘as close to a sense of belonging as she was ever likely to encounter'.

Ruth, too, discovers that cultural acceptability will entail either a repression of the needy little girl beneath the role of maternal servant or a regression into the refuge of permanent adolescence like her mother's: positions which, in their splitting of dependency and their control of the feminine, will ensure masculine security. Her father, for example, tiring of his little girl wife as her petulance sits ever more incongruously with her increasing age, turns to the ‘maternal’ Mrs Jacobs for comfort and succour: ‘He particularly liked the way Sally took his plate away the moment he had set it down, how she ran to the kitchen and washed it up'. To ‘cheer her up’ and with boyish enthusiasm, he fills her kitchen with expensive gadgetry, unconsciously desiring to import a ‘masculine’ control and efficiency into her fussy world of lace doilies and tiny embroidered napkins.

Ruth's repressed emotional needs, unsatisfactorily displaced on to the study of ‘Balzac's women', seek expression not through ‘little girl’ behaviour like her mother's, but through activities similar to those of Mrs Jacobs. Ruth seeks to earn love and attention through serving, seeking to please. When Richard arrives hours late to her laboriously prepared cordon bleu meal and proceeds, without apology, to discuss his difficulties with another woman, Harriet, Ruth feels only shame at her tiredness, accepting his criticism, ‘Sometimes, Ruth … I wonder if you're really a caring person', and offering a hundred pounds to help Harriet over her financial worries. Similarly, feeling that she cannot be the ‘ideal mother’ required by her parents because of her own lack of mothering, Ruth senses herself continuously bound to them through anxiety and guilt. Like Edith, she becomes partially aware of her psychological compulsions, wondering, ‘Would she always react in the same way to those who did not want her, trying ever more hopelessly to please?’ Near the end of the novel, however, her fears and despair overwhelm her. Turning to the back of the taxi, she realizes that her mother is slipping down under her blue eyeshadow and jaunty denim cap—that she is, in fact, dying: ‘Ruth screamed. “Take me home. Take me home. Take me home.” Tears spurted from her eyes and her mouth opened like a child's. “Take me home,” she chanted. “Take me home”’.

Her fear is that of the lost child who believes no one will find her and that she will disintegrate. By the time they reach ‘home', Ruth's mother is, indeed, dead. Ruth, unable to maintain any longer her precarious boundaries through the discipline of work, marries Mrs Jacobs's son, ‘an amiable but childish character’ who seeks in Ruth ‘maternal protection’ and in return allows her to cling to him in the night ‘when she wakened so inexplicably in terror'. All of the characters, in fact, remain imprisoned in a state of neurotic dependency and infantilization. As Jane Flax has argued, for the little girl, ‘the rift between identifying with the mother and being oneself can only be closed within a relationship in which one is nurtured for being one's autonomous self'. As in all of Brookner's novels, it is virtually impossible for her women characters to achieve this sort of autonomy and self-esteem because of their identification with a maternal figure or a feminine cultural stereotype which involves continuous denial and repression of their own needs. They seek, in literature or in romance, an ideal union and a satisfaction of need and desire which reveals, as Flax argues, that ‘women's unresolved wishes for the mother is the truth behind Freud's claim that what women wish for in a husband is their mother'.

Brookner's heroines, however, equally fear success. To be ‘successful’ in the ‘public’ world involves emulating and embracing what the culture perceives to be ‘male’ values—independence, efficiency, ambition—and repressing what it regards as ‘female': nurturance, dependency, self-effacement. To masquerade as successful thus involves an implicit denial of the connection to the mother and, therefore, a repression of the wish that the woman's needs will ultimately be met through the mother's nurturance. Flax has argued:

The wish to fail is buried deep and is hard to retrieve from the unconscious. It does not cease to exist when women are able to identify the social forces that also pressure them towards failure or compromise. One may have a very sophisticated analysis of patriarchy and female socialization and still engage in self-defeating acts at work or in relations with others. The wish to fail may take more disguised forms, for instance, in a profound ambivalence towards work. A woman's desire to succeed may be undercut by a sense of being a ‘fake’—of being much less competent than people think, of not really belonging in this world, of marking time until her real fate arrives. It may be difficult for her to think of her work as a career, to work as single-mindedly as a man would. She may be profoundly troubled by questions about the ultimate worth and meaning of her efforts.

Not only Brookner's but also Woolf's and Drabble's novels are full of women characters who cope with their ambivalent feelings in this way. Lily Briscoe finds it difficult to take her painting seriously, while Drabble's Frances Wingate, a well-known archaeologist, dismisses her life's work as the pursuit of an illusion. Edith Hope makes ‘no claim for my particular sort of writing’ and sees her success as neurotic substitution rather than talent. Brookner's academic women, Ruth Weiss and Kitty Maule (Providence [1983]), similarly, if unconsciously, regard their work ‘as a sort of hobby', as Kitty says in Providence, and see it as a betrayal of their mother's desires for them to be ‘proper women'.

Fanny Hinton, in Brookner's Look at Me [1982], similarly obsessed by the image of the absent mother, also sees her writing as a form of substitute gratification. She, too, is terrified of being seen as needy and hence idealizes those who appear to be powerful and beautiful, who appear not to need. Nick is admired above all because he is ‘devoid of that element of need that makes some men, and rather a lot of women, unattractive in their desires; he was, in fact, desire in its pure state'. Yet Nick is clearly not devoid of need. He requires the gaze of others to confirm his sense of perfection and, with Alix his wife, he indulges in a mutual masturbatory fascination which requires the presence always of a third person to consolidate their image of perfect unity. Fanny in fact senses:

They found my company necessary…. I felt lonely and excited. I was there because some element in that perfect marriage was deficient, because ritual demonstrations were needed to maintain a level of arousal which they were too complacent, perhaps too spoilt, even too lazy, to supply for themselves, out of their own imaginations.

Fanny does not wish to be cast in the role of voyeur, however, seeking vicarious satisfaction from the sexual intimacies of others. She wants to be looked at herself, to be the focus of their gaze, to be received as a ‘gift'. Again, like Kitty, she feels herself to be deficient, lacking some essence of femininity which she cannot define. Indeed, Kaja Silverman has suggested that the female ‘body is charted, zoned and made to bear … a meaning which proceeds entirely from external relations, but which is always subsequently apprehended as an internal condition or essence'.

Fanny obsessively seeks such an essence, poring over the ‘charted’ and ‘zoned’ images of women in the library where her job is to catalogue facts about mental disorder. She wonders why melancholy, traditionally female, ‘is very frightening, but the person she frightens most is herself. She is her own disease’ (Look at Me). As with other Brookner female characters, Fanny experiences her own sense of loss and neediness as an illness, a disease. Like Edith Hope, she views her writing as a pathological displacement of such need—'It is an attempt to reach others and to make them love you’—and Fanny would give her entire writerly output ‘for permission to state “I hurt” or “I hate” or “I want“. Or indeed, “Look at me”'. Her relationship with James fails largely because of his own inability to relate to women without splitting the intimate from the erotic. Fanny, however, blames herself, feeling that her pleasure in his company had ‘seemed to dwindle into the occupations of a child, or an invalid'. She is caught between the fear that ‘femininity’ is itself a form of regression, an illness, a neediness, and the fear that she herself is ill, ‘an invalid', or ‘childlike', precisely because she lacks a feminine ‘essence'. Nick, she believes, can bestow this upon her, for ‘his greatest gift to us was that intermittent, speculative gaze'. Such a gift, however, will only fall, she believes, if she can cultivate the same moral insouciance and erotic carelessness as Alix with her ‘aura of power', rapacious teeth, and ‘immense reserves of appetite and pleasure'. Fanny's self-hatred is thus directed at what she sees as her infantile neediness, her craving for love, her inability to give up the memory of her invalid mother whose house she preserves like a shrine and whose loss she mourns daily in her writing. She feels herself psychologically to be in the same state of invalidism which manifested itself physically in her mother. In both instances, the consequences are dependency and neediness. Thus, in order to be loved, Fanny believes that she must care for and please others and on no account reveal the child within herself which needs care. Repeatedly, Alix and Nick are referred to as ‘glamorous parent’ figures whom she seeks, like a good girl, to please, accepting their exploitative and egotistical behaviour ‘because I was a child and I was waiting for the adults to come back from what was so mysteriously keeping them and to allow me once again into their company'.

In her short relationship with James, Fanny experiences, she believes, being ‘looked at', growing whole and complete, constituted as a person through his gaze. His attention to her leads her to believe that she has at last achieved the mysterious state of ‘essential femininity', has grown up, become a woman. But as Catherine McKinnon argues:

Socially, femaleness means femininity, which means attractiveness, which means sexual availability on male terms. What defines woman as such is what turns man on. Good girls are ‘attractive', bad girls ‘provocative'. Gender socialization is the process through which women come to identify themselves as sexual beings, as beings that exist for men. It is that process through which women internalize (make their own) a male image of their sexuality as their identity as women. It is not just an illusion.

Just as Fanny in fact begins to experience a sense of purpose, having ‘James, my life's work to study', he, unable to combine erotic attachment with affectional intimacy, is pursuing one of Alix's protégées, Maria, whose femininity he does, indeed, perceive as ‘sexual availability on male terms'. As she compares herself with Alix, ‘powerful, in her tight black dress', Fanny, ‘blameless in my grey dress', urges silently ‘Look at me'. As she recognizes James's betrayal, her sense of illusory wholeness and identity fragments, and she sees it is ‘so damaged that it was simply a question of safety, of survival, to protect the ruins'. She flees at the end, pursued, it seems, by a possible sexual attacker until, terrified, she arrives at her flat and immerses herself in water, feeling herself seep out into its elemental comfort. For the first time she puts on her mother's nightdress and climbs also into her bed. She sinks into a ‘dense’ sleep, ‘hungry for it, as for some gross food', seeing her face ‘questing, in my pig-like search for unknowingness', and feeling her body, thin and flat, pleased that ‘I should dwindle, that I should shed my biological characteristics'. Unable to accept an impossible, socially defined femininity, Fanny prefers the annihilation and regression of withdrawal to a pre-oedipal world suggested through the oral images and the deliberate taking on of the dead mother's garments. Here she fantasizes herself as biologically neutral, neither male nor female, in possession of, because at one with, the phallic mother. She has sought in James the ‘good mother’ who will assure her of her own ‘goodness', a mutual nurturance which produces in both, however, an incapacity for erotic expression. Sexually inhibited, therefore, Fanny feels herself to lack that so-called ‘feminine essence’ constituted through male desire. Yet though she desires to be looked at erotically, to be desired, the terror of potential sexual violence conveyed through the pursuit at the end is an objective correlative for Fanny's own sense that such an incorporative gaze would, in fact, annihilate her altogether. She escapes—but only to immerse herself in the maternal bed, to shut out the world and regress.

Jonathan Yardley (review 12 March 1989)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1063

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 Me—she does this with sensitivity, empathy and no small measure of wit.

But Latecomers is quite another matter. Long before it begins, the romantic and sexual connections have been made: between Thomas Hartmann and his wife, Yvette, and between Thomas Fibich and his wife, Christine. Both marriages are now in their late middle periods, and both have produced children, now grown: a daughter, Marianne, to the Hartmanns, and a son, Toto, to the Fibichs. Both families are prosperous; the men, who have been friends since they were thrown together as schoolboys after escaping from Germany in World War II, have a successful greeting-card business and more recently have expanded into photocopying machines.

The four parents are happy people to whom life has been generous; they are also people to whom happiness has come relatively late, as their lives began with relatively little hope or promise and only slowly were transported from darkness into light—they are, as Hartmann notes with pleasure, latecomers. But happiness is a fragile thing, and theirs is all the more so for having been hard-won; not merely does the shadow of the war hang over the two men, but both marriages are imperfect and subject not so much to dissolution—these are old-fashioned people to whom divorce would be impermissible—as to tension, misunderstanding and fatigue.

It could be said that each marriage has survived in spite of itself. There is little physical affinity between the Hartmanns—she is beautiful but devoid of passion, and he has found his satisfactions elsewhere—and the Fibichs are bound more by an “odd drive … towards partnership” than by any strong attraction. A further complication is that both sets of parents are not entirely content with the children they have produced; Marianne is devoid of fire and Toto is overbearing. Hovering over all else is the knowledge, confirmed daily in ways both small and large, that all four parents are steadily, inexorably growing older, becoming obsessed by what Hartmann calls “Torschlusspanik: the panic of the shutting of the door.”

Each faces that awareness in a different way, but it is in Fibich that their fears crystallize. Since fleeing Germany all these years ago, he has been haunted by memories of the parents he never again saw; he is convinced, for all the joy of his life in London, “that his true life lay elsewhere, that it remained undiscovered, that his task was to reclaim it, to repossess it, and that for as long as it remained hidden from him he would be a sleepwalker, doomed to pass through a life designed for him by others, with no place he recognized as home.” Hartmann, realist and fatalist that he is, tells his friend to forget the past and glory in the present, but this Fibich cannot do until he confronts his past—until he goes back to Berlin to discover whether “the past would be returned to him as an illumination.”

It is not; what he discovers is that “life brings revelations,” and that he has been so caught up in his past that he has failed to see them. This comes to him in a moment of understanding that is at the core of the book:

“Ah, he thought, the truth bursting on him suddenly, nobody grows up. Everyone carries around all the selves that they have ever been, intact, waiting to be reactivated in moments of pain, of fear, of danger. Everything is retrievable, every shock, every hurt. But perhaps it becomes a duty to abandon the stock of time that one carries within oneself, to discard it in favor of the present, so that one's embrace may be turned outwards to the world in which one has made one's home.”

Back in England, back in the embrace of “the little family that had kept him whole,” Fibich is restored to his “true” life, which turns out to be precisely. What he has had for all these years: his wife, his son, his beloved friends. “Look!” he thinks. “We have come through!” Life in time will end, but so long as we have it, we must live it: the moral may seem obvious, but in Brookner's hands it acquires new meaning and resonance.

This is because she explores that moral within a setting that is entirely believable. Latecomers is a book not about romantic love but about love in the real world: about accepting and loving people for what they are rather than what one might wish them to be, about the slow, secret ways in which people work themselves so deeply into each other's hearts that extrication is unimaginable, about the acceptance and even celebration of human imperfection. It is written with grace and elegance that border on the astonishing, and in every line there is an undercurrent of wry amusement by which we are reminded that this is not tragedy but comedy. At her own pace and in her own fashion, Anita Brookner works a spell on the reader; being under it is both an education and a delight.

John Updike (review date 1 May 1989)

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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 crystals into his coffee cup, then placed a square of bitter chocolate on his tongue, and, while it was dissolving, lit his first cigarette,” and A Theft announces, “Clara Velde, to begin with what was conspicuous about her, had short blond hair, fashionably cut, growing upon a head unusually big.” We get a decided picture, and although in the end both novelists appear more solicitous and knowing in regard to characters of their own sex, the novels have nevertheless gained the liveliness of exploration, and an energized scope.

Anita Brookner, who teaches at the Courtauld Institute of Art, has published seven other novels as well as four books on such artists as Watteau, Greuze, and David. She writes thrillingly well, in lucid, balanced sentences that owe something to the scrupulous qualifications and dry moral vigilance of Henry James. She sees human beings, if one may generalize, as most active on their own behalfs, and the ruthless drive of her characters, as filtered through the rueful sensibility of one of her female observers, can shock us into laughter. She is, in the English tradition, a thoroughly social novelist, for whom there lies beyond the human spectacle nothing but death and scenery, yet she brings to the English scene an outsider's precise eye—her parents were born in Central Europe, and her characters tend to be, with the most delicate of exotic shadings, immigrants. Thomas Hartmann, our voluptuary, was sent as “a frightened boy” from Munich to London before the war, “to live with his father's sister, Marie, who had providently married an Englishman named Jessop.” At a bleak boarding school in Surrey he encounters Thomas Fibich, who was even more abruptly severed from his past; Fibich has no childhood memories except of himself—very plump, though he has become a slender man—sitting in a large wing chair called “the Voltaire,” and of his mother fainting in his father's arms as they see him off at a Berlin railroad station. The two war orphans, forbidden to speak German to each other at school, form a lifelong bond, “although their temperaments were diametrically opposed and they rarely thought alike on any matter.” Hartmann's Aunt Marie informally adopts Fibich as well. Both young men enter the printing trade after the war and then, under Hartmann's inspiration, found a company producing “greetings cards, of a cruel and tasteless nature, which paid their way very nicely for about twenty years, until Hartmann, who did little work but was valued for his Fingerspitzengefuhl, his flair, his sixth sense, suggested that the market in this commodity was self-limiting, and that there were fortunes to be made in photocopying machines.” The prospering partners find mates who reinforce their aura of orphanhood: Hartmann marries an inept secretary for the company, Yvette, whose father met a mysterious end in Occupied France, and whose mother, to escape destitution at the end of the war, married in Bordeaux the representative of an English wine shipper; and Fibich, after considerable prompting from Hartmann, takes to wife Christine Hardy, whose mother, before her early death, had been Mr. Jessop's sister, and thus created a tenuous link with Aunt Marie's household and its two young Germans called Thomas. The couples come to occupy two flats, one above the other, in Ashley Gardens; the Hartmanns are blessed with a beautiful daughter, Marianne, and, six years later, the Fibichs with a robust son, called Toto, for Thomas. If it has taken this reviewer a while to spell out these arrangements, rest assured that the book takes even longer, and that, indeed, their stately and witty spelling out composes most of the plot.

The novel spans more than fifty years, and gently moves through an atmosphere thick with inertia and melancholy. Much is told, little is shown. Not until page 85 do we begin to get runs of dialogue, though an earlier brief spurt comically dramatizes Christine's brusque abandonment by her stepmother after her father dies:

One day Christine came home to find four suitcases in the hall, and beside them Mrs. Hardy, in a fur coat that had belonged to Christine's mother, waiting for her.

“Well, Christine, I'm off,” she said. “You can stay here. He left you the flat. You'll have enough to manage on for life if you're careful.”

“But where will you be?” asked Christine.

“I'm off to Bournemouth. I'll leave you my address, although I can't promise to be in touch. I'm going into the hotel business with my brother-in-law. My first husband's brother, that is. He's on his own, like me.” The light of remarriage was already kindling in her eye.

The four principals’ childhoods, just sufficiently populated with adults to keep them from being wards of the state, burden them with suppressed memories and an ineradicable desolation; the London they inhabit, despite Ms. Brookner's gift for lively visual details, feels like a ghost town. The Second World War, with its millions of severances, spared their lives but left them not much ability to live, except by forced hedonism (the Hartmanns) and wan stoicism (the Fibichs). The latter's state is analyzed in a passage not untypical of the heavily expository prose:

Both had been so deprived of childhood that in a sense they were both still waiting in the wings, unaware that, happy or unhappy, this state must be passed, that all beginnings are to a certain extent situated in limbo, and are only an introduction to the definitive actions to which they are a prologue. What, in [Fibich's] view, incapacitated both Christine and himself and constituted their inalienable but unwelcome bond, was that they had been deprived of their childhood through the involuntary absence of adults, that his own parents and Christine's mother had vanished without a trace, spirited away by a turn of events that wholly excluded their offspring, without being known, and that they had been left in the charge of strangers who, though tolerably well disposed, were uninvolved, uninterested. They had grown up, therefore, without true instruction, without the saws and homilies, the customs and idiosyncrasies, that, for children, constitute a philosophy.

“Definitive actions” are what don't forthcome, though the second half of the book abounds with aborted possibilities. Christine dreams of leaving and going to a land of sun, but doesn't. The couples talk of acquiring in common a Mediterranean retreat, and in the end don't bother. The possibility that their two children, opportunely of opposite sexes, though of inconvenient ages, might unite their lines comes to naught; the Don Juanish Toto does try a little date rape on Marianne two days before her wedding, but the bruising moment does not save her from a frumpy marriage or him from an isolated life of film stardom and self-centered celibacy. Climactically, Fibich at last dares his long-meditated return to Berlin, but nothing much happens; he pursues no search for his lost family's identity or home, and experiences no revelation until back in Heathrow Airport, where a strange woman faints. In Berlin, he remembers afterward, he felt “on the verge of a great discovery. But perhaps that was the discovery, quite simply that life brings revelations, supplies all the material we need. And if it does not supply it in the right order, then we must simply wait for more to come to light.” A modest moral for a loving and expert but eerily tentative fiction. Like many excellent modern novels, Latecomers supplies everything but a catharsis.

Perhaps a more intrinsic moral is, as Fibich perceives during his five aimless days in Berlin, that “nobody grows up. Everyone carries around all the selves that they have ever been, intact.” Ms. Brookner sensitively measures out emotional deprivation and traces its results in subtle bereavements and disappointments. She, as author, seems to set herself to give the characters the love they cannot give each other. The two male heroes are coddled to the point of remaining rather milky; their fussy self-regard and essential passivity begin to exasperate us, and we feel less spark between them than we would like to. They would seem to be Jewish, but this is never stated, or used to illuminate their melancholy and grateful wonder at being alive. It is the women who really brighten the author's eye and pen: flashy and chattery and yet frigid Yvette; “shadowy” yet deeply feeling Christine; Hartmann's too perfect mistress, Elizabeth, through whose ministrations both parties come “into contact with their lesser selves” Aunt Marie, with her Germanic tweed cape and “pheasant feathers in the band of her brown felt hat” Yvette's aged mother, with “that hardy appearance of French women past the age of pleasure, still flushed, thin-lipped, the head held high, dour, unsmiling” and even a passing monster like Rita Hardy on her way to Bournemouth, or Fibich's psychoanalyst, “Mrs. Gebhardt, with her transfixing but fallacious maternal aura and the kindly smile built on a foundation of indifference.” The heroine of Anita Brookner's Hotel du Lac, a writer of romances, at one point thinks, “I have been too harsh on women … because I understand them better than I understand men. I know their watchfulness, their patience, their need to advertise themselves as successful.” The world of the novel is usually a world of relationships, and in this world women do star. Ms. Brookner's female characters glow through the crepuscular light of her wry understanding, and fill the pages of Latecomers with a mood of helpless caring.

Rosemary Dinnage (review date 1 June 1989)

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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 family roots.

Families cast a large shadow over Brookner's central characters; parents are frivolous or self-absorbed or in some other way essentially absent, and their children inherit only a weight of gravity. They—daughters, in most of the books—approach the world with scrupulosity and puzzlement and are no match for the opposite Brookner character type, who is confidently dishonest. The contest is between those who had to be adult even as children and those who remain children even though they are adult. The latter always win. Edith in Hotel du Lac writes popular novels in which the tortoise always outruns the hare:

“Now you will notice, Harold, that in my books it is the mouse-like unassuming girl who gets the hero, while the scornful temptress with whom he has had a stormy affair retreats baffled from the fray, never to return. The tortoise wins every time. This is a lie, of course,” she said, pleasantly, but with authority.

The real facts of life, she concludes, are too terrible for the kind of fiction she writes. Aesop, in any case, was obviously writing for the tortoise market—“hares have no time to read. They are too busy winning the game.”

Brookner has been faulted for her preoccupation with the hare/tortoise theme, for the meekness of her tortoise heroines, who tend to stand at windows staring out into the dusk. But her central argument is rethought each time, carried through each time with a felicitous cast of minor characters—the draughtsmanship in the corners of her novels is always stylish.

After the first four of the novels (which are the most emotionally charged) her theme broadens out, and then in Latecomers is transposed into quite a new key; the four characters there, two German Jewish refugees and their wives, neither win nor lose a race, rather they start late and run honorably. Honor is a key concept in Brookner's ethics—Plato's “Honor is the highest good” recurs in A Misalliance—for her favorites lose the race not only because they had no chance to learn the knack of living, but because they are committed, whether they wish it or not, to honorable behavior. This is what makes it seem at times as though in the Brooknerian world there is only a choice between virtuous failure and deceitful success; but there are so many variations on the idea, and wittily composed backgrounds—and besides, it enables Anita Brookner to wield a bracingly sharp knife on the kind of person she dislikes.

Brookner is unfashionable—shocking, even—in placing romantic love at the center of her plots; or rather, not romantic love, but true love. Domestic love. As a historian of French Romanticism she knows the subject well; but what her women want is not “extravagant displays of passion, the grand affair, the world well lost for love.” Rather, “the simplicity of routine. An evening walk, arm in arm, in fine weather. A game of cards. Time for idle talk. Preparing a meal together.” Whether her heroines have intellectual occupations, or none, they are not able, or not dishonest enough, to find their lives alone satisfactory. The narrator of her seventh novel, A Friend from England, who tries it on, is rather cruelly unmasked. She has wanted to make sure of avoiding pain, of running with the hares, and so espouses a philosophy of self-sufficiency; this is brave but, as she finds out, not honest.

Brookner is not particularly inclined to blame men for the state of affairs, though she has some extremely wicked men characters—in fact hardly any that one could warm to, before Latecomers. The sharp knife is really out for a certain kind of woman, a certain kind of “femininity.” As Edith, again, says:

“I'm not talking about the feminists. I can understand their position, although I'm not all that sympathetic to it. I'm talking about the ultra feminine. I'm talking about the complacent consumers of men with their complicated but unwritten rules of what is due to them. Treats. Indulgences. Privileges…. The cult of themselves. Such women strike me as dishonorable. And terrifying.”

The first four novels form a group, their heroines all in one way or another displaced persons, standing baffled on the edge of things. Ruth Weiss in A Start in Life (watch Brookner's names) is a Balzac specialist. Literary preoccupations are often a reference point; Ruth broods over Eugénie Grandet, who so humbly said, “Je suis trop laide, il ne fera pas attention à moi.” Eugénie's failure to be loved, Ruth thinks, might be traced back to her parents. Her own are a light-weight, posing couple of Viennese refugees who leave their daughter's upbringing to a black-clad grandmother (Brookner heroines tend to have no brothers or sisters). Ruth therefore is someone who assumes responsibilities automatically; in her college common room it is she who buys the milk and sugar for tea. But her nurse once told her that Cinderella did go to the ball; and Dr. Weiss does, very nearly, escape the family trap. Nearly; not quite, of course. She is called home to care for her father, and she does not rebel. This start in life comes to an early end.

Unlike most London novels, which are usually set in converted Kentish Town cottages with stripped pine dressers, Brookner's inhabit a world of “mansion flats” in Maida Vale or St. John's Wood, of furniture in dark woods “which looked as though they had absorbed the blood of horses,” of flock wallpapers and brooding dining rooms, wilting flowers and family photographs and epergnes and silver cake stands, of streets without shops where stout foreign-born widows walk small dogs on long gray afternoons. Brookner is an immaculate detailer of background and décor, clothes and meals. Kitty Maule in her second novel, Providence, is immaculate too, perfectly dressed because her grandmother is a French dressmaker; but there is something about immaculacy which bodes no good for Brookner women (though jeans, on the other hand, are for “gallant lady tourists” who have taken up self-improvement). Kitty, who never knew her English father, pines for Englishness, sloppiness, not having to make an effort. Knowing the ropes instinctively. “I should call her well-bred,” says an acquaintance. “The natives, after all, don't have to bother.”

Providence—Providence being what one trusts to, in Kitty's case without success—is again much enriched by a central literary allusion. Kitty takes her students through the text of Benjamin Constant's Adolphe, through Adolphe's realization that by breaking his mistress's heart he has killed his own: “I was free indeed, I was no longer loved; I was a stranger to the rest of the world.” The potency of the book, she tells her students, comes from the juxtaposition of dry language and passionate feeling. “Even if the despair is total, the control remains,” she says. “This is very elegant, very important.” And this is true of Providence, of all Brookner's novels. As in Adolphe, Kitty's heart is broken, quite definitely and in the Romantic tradition, but passion is drily controlled. Yet again it is this control, this matter of immaculacy and good breeding, that seems to disqualify the Brookner heroine.

Brookner's morality is, in a sense, a question of manners; the hares that win the race have appalling manners, appalling enough to destroy the polite. The man who hurts Kitty in Providence is a dreadful booby with a bafflingly bland manner, a factitious interest in French cathedrals, and a mysterious sorrow which, it seems, excuses everything. But Brookner's stare at his lover, a student of Kitty's is even beadier. At their seminars

she was so extremely beautiful that it seemed a concession for her to have written anything at all…. She had long pre-Raphaelite tendrils of beige hair with which she played throughout the seminar, drawing them back briskly behind her neck as if in preparation for some sort of announcement, or winding a lock round and round her fingers and across her lips, her immense eyelids lowered in obviously meaningful reminiscence.

Her contributions to the seminars on Adolphe and Romanticism, on the lines of “I think it's boring,” are received with deference by everyone. So it is with Alix in Look at Me, who dazzles orphan Fanny with her laugh and her splendid teeth and her bouts of raillery—everyone does look at her. She has the kind of marriage that needs an audience for arch performances; Alix transfixes a room with crucial discussions of how she should wear her hair; worse—for she can cook very little—she talks of “my spaghetti.” “You must come and have some of my spaghetti.” Oh, I should be afraid to let Dr. Brookner into my kitchen. What her characters cook, and eat, is an even more essential clue to them than what they wear and decorate their flats with.

Latecomers is prefigured by Family and Friends, which opens out the themes into a history of a whole family, foreign-born and settled in England. There are four siblings, ruled, benignly, by a matriarch; the pattern of their reactions to the weight of the family is traced, the way roles—dutiful or rebellious—are divided out, the kinds of self-deception chosen. Blanche, in A Misalliance, does not deal in delusion; this is the most focused study of controlled loneliness of them all. An impatient reader might want to know—why this extravagant moping, especially for a husband tasteless enough to leave Blanche for someone called Mousie? Brookner's point is just that some people are not able to be other than they are: are not adaptable, cannot diversify, do not recover, will not be fobbed off. Insofar as change happens to these characters, it means a falling away of innocence or hopefulness.

This is where Latecomers differs from the novels that lead up to it and why it is, I believe, the best she has written. It was perhaps time for Brookner to come to the end of themes of losers and winners, and draw characters who—however guardedly, imperceptibly—find ways of living on in despite of early damage. Many of Brookner's characters are in some sense orphans; in Latecomers Thomas Hartmann and Thomas Fibich are so literally. Hartmann's parents were driven off one day, still smiling; Fibich's put him on a train to England and turned away. Hartmann was twelve years old, Fibich seven; Hartmann from Munich, Fibich from Berlin. Through the wretched first years in England, Hartmann protects the younger boy; after school they set up in business together, printing humorously insulting birthday cards that make them modestly prosperous. They take flats in the same block, and with their wives live as a foursome.

This is brotherhood. The two men are quite different; Hartmann, whose tragedy came later in his childhood, chooses urbanity and small, sensual pleasures; his project is damage limitation. He takes a sleeping pill every night and refuses to have bad dreams; his motto might be one that teases Fanny in Look at Me“Glissez, mortels; n'appuyez pas.” Usually Brookner's characters who choose to skate over thin ice are dishonorable; Hartmann is a good man, he loves Fibich. Fibich is tortured by the past, and even more by the lack of it, by the blotting out of all early memories. But—“It is over,” Hartmann will say to Fibich. “On his face, when he spoke these words, there would pass, unknown to himself, an air of great weariness that was at odds with his dismissal of times long gone.”

Their wives, again, have grown up “without true instruction, without the saws and homilies, the customs and idiosyncrasies, that, for children, constitute a philosophy”; both also reconstruct their lives in opposite ways. They are paired off like two sets of siblings, Hartmann with bustling Yvette and Fibich with melancholy Christine. Yvette is a wonderful character, the “look-at-me” woman drawn with greatest affection, for she is kind and cooks well.

She still entered a room with a sort of pre-emptive bustle, as if drawing on herself the attention of a crowd: she always assumed an audience, and frequently got one. She liked to imagine people saying “Who is she? Who is that beautifully groomed woman with the blonde hair?”

Hartmann finds her so entertainingly ridiculous that he marries her. But a certain expression of blankness comes over Yvette's face from time to time, which the other three recognize with pity. Orphaned daughter of a traitor shot by the French Resistance, her choice is to make a fairy tale out of her childhood. And Christine, child of absentee parents, gravitates toward Fibich because they share the same terror of life. Latecomers takes these four, with the two children they have, right through until the beginning of old age.

“Look! We have come through,” is what Hartmann says to himself from time to time; and to Fibich,

You are not a survivor. You are a latecomer, like me. Like Yvette, for that matter. You had a bad start. Why go back to the beginning?

But there is no facile optimism about coming through. Fibich knows that

… his task as a man was … to bring into completion the ragged fragments of a destiny of which he felt himself to be the most lamentable, the most fallible of elements. …

He longed to walk a foreign street and be recognized. He imagined it, the start of wonder on an elderly person's face. Is it you, Fibich's boy? You used to play with my children.

The ordeals he undertakes in search of the lost fragments have only partial success; and his marriage to Christine, though the only one possible for either of them, is rather a sad one.

The story of the growing up of the children of each couple, Marianne Hartmann and Toto Fibich, has unexpected twists, echoes of the hare and tortoise theme, and they are left at the end of the book with possibilities for future happiness just left open. Toto is a changeling to his timid parents, quiet Marianne equally astonishing to hers; they may turn out to be latecomers too. Families, in Brookner's other books, are usually something that happened in the past of her characters, and to their detriment. Here the growth of a family is followed; not just the growth of Toto and Marianne, characters who this time have their own impetus quite apart from their parents', but the family that Hartmann and Fibich and Yvette and Christine form in the face of exile. This is reminiscent of the group of orphaned children from Theresienstadt who were brought to England and survived, parents to each other.

Hartmann grows old pensively, Yvette gallantly, Christine quietly. Fibich, over sixty years old, weeps over the grilled sole in a restaurant with Hartmann, and begins to mend. He has been back to Berlin, looking through streets and parks and suburbs, and leaving behind some survivor's guilt. “Wrong start, wrong finish,” Blanche's summing-up in A Misalliance, may not be the last word. Enclosed with a memoir of his start in life Fibich places a letter for his son:

“Your grandfather's name was Manfred. Your grandmother was Rosa. She was very beautiful. You will read all about them in the notebook… .

Do you remember that poem I used to read you night after night, in an attempt to get you to sleep? Do you remember “battle's magnificently stern array”? I was never able to capture that spirit myself. Some battles, however, are fought in the mind, and sometimes won there.”

Phillip Lopate (review date 11 March 1990)

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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 protagonists in The Debut, Providence and Hotel du Lac: another sharply intelligent, overly humble type, sensually inexperienced, lonely and hungry for love. When we first meet Lewis, in his early 20's, he is writing a thesis on heroism in the 19th-century novel. (Lewis is an excellent scholar; this talent for intellectual production seems a dignity given to Miss Brookner's characters partly to offset their pathetic romantic fortunes.) Still chaste, he is also something of a mama's boy: “He was aware that he loved women in general too much to hurt them, and that his mother's stricture—‘I don't think we want to be unkind, do we, Lewis?’—would always inhibit him from the measure of decisiveness that might be conclusive. And he was also aware that to offer a woman sympathy was not always an heroic tactic. Yet what he felt for women was precisely a kind of yearning sympathy.”

When his mother dies, shockingly, in Chapter Two, Lewis is suddenly left on his own. He immediately sets out to find “a female presence to comfort his loneliness.” We may smile at his notion of women as primarily consoling helpmates, but while this attitude makes inevitable a series of rude awakenings, Lewis is almost too modest about his power to attract the opposite sex—and too chivalrous—for us to experience these reversals in the malicious spirit of a well-deserved comeuppance. By now chained to a library job, he becomes drawn to another librarian, the perennially girlish, virginal, incurious and self-contained Tissy Harper. Tissy is, among other things, agoraphobic, and Lewis conceives the wild hope that through marriage he will heroically rescue her from dependence on her domineering mother and from the illness itself. It is not giving away too much of the plot to say that the marriage does not go well.

To complicate matters, Lewis falls in love with Emmy, his wife's antipode: a lively, voluptuous, emotionally avaricious actress who keeps trying to entice him into having an affair. Lewis struggles to act honorably and keep his marriage vows, thereby antagonizing both women. Emmy is put off because he seems to have rejected her, when what he really wants is not a quick fling but a changed, better life, Tissy is convinced he has cheated on her.

It should not surprise us when a woman novelist creates a wholly believable male protagonist, as Miss Brookner does here. What did surprise me, however, was how deeply and sympathetically she has entered into men's bafflement at women's supple commandeering of the moral high ground: “He came, of course, as a suppliant, knowing himself to be deeply in the wrong, but not as wrong as all that, simply wrong in the way that men have always felt themselves to be in the light of a woman's accusatory disapproval. His inability to defend himself grew in proportion to her refusal to believe him. There is something contemptible about a man who says, ‘But nothing happened!’”

By identifying so sensitively with the viewpoint of a man who is essentially decent and kind to women, and who still gets beat up in the sexual wars, Miss Brookner seems to be attempting a slight correction of recent feminist fiction. In a rare self-defense, Lewis tells Emmy: “I should like to behave well, I really should. And if that makes me a prig, I can't help it. Priggishness may yet make a comeback, who knows?” Miss Brookner has taken a gamble that readers will empathize with this particular relic, and while his passivity and hesitations sometimes make you want to strangle him, Lewis does seem on the whole endearing. Partly it is his hunger for something more, something beyond this dry, buried life.

What saves Lewis is that he grows in stature over the course of the novel, so that what initially seemed timid restraints gradually become principled refusals. And he acts when he needs to, with an unfashionable sense of responsibility. “Life, in fact, is not simply a series of exciting new ventures.” he tells a friend. “The future is not always a whole new ball game. There tends to be unfinished business.” In his case, that business is a daughter, whom he would like to rescue from her mother's “natural prejudice against men.”

Lewis's innocence, at first shown critically as a kind of arrested development, eventually comes to be tempered by the disappointments of experience into something finer and more definitive of character. By remaining true to himself, he is able to keep what the philosopher Stuart Hampshire has called “the virtues of innocence,” namely, “absolute integrity, gentleness, disposition to sympathy, a fastidious sense of honor, generosity, a disposition to gratitude.”

In other novels, Miss Brookner has been at pains to punish innocence. Here, however, she takes up its brief: first, by presenting worldliness in satirical terms as vulgar and optimistic; second, by allowing her lifelong innocent an unusually optimistic second chance. It would almost seem that her adoption of a male point of view has permitted her more affective leeway. Miss Brookner has always been an incisively intelligent writer, composing one exquisite sentence after another, but sometimes a certain chill around the heart has seemed the price for that precision. In this new novel, the overall tone is decidedly warmer, more hopeful; these are buoyancies she has not often allowed herself when dissecting the self-deceptions of her own sex.

Lewis Percy has a few minor flaws. There is a somewhat mechanical handling of the passage of time: the novel begins in 1959 and goes through the 70's, but neither Lewis's aging nor the historical signposts in the background are always convincingly rendered. And the final turn of the screw may be one too many. Otherwise, Anita Brookner has given us a brilliantly executed novel, one that is suspenseful in spite of its apparent lack of action. Her trick is to make us realize that we all have a Lewis Percy inside us, like it or not. In an age of specialization and sensual bombardment, we are all, if not innocents, certainly amateurs in the realm of potential worldly experience.

Joyce Reiser Kornblatt (review date 21 July 1991)

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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 compassionate, more expansive subtext. Slowly, the woman who was devoted to staving off “emptiness and longing” emerges as heroic in spite of her declarations to the contrary. As she faces mortality her unfailing reserve acquires the stature of a tragic bearing. (“I watch the light fade with a sort of anguish, an anguish which is not entirely temporal. I perceive the symbolism of the end of the day.”)

Fay's solitary fate reasserts itself throughout her life. Her beloved father's death devastates her (“my heart died”). Her mother, to whom she remains devoted, sinks into a slow invalidism from which she never recovers. Fay's infatuation with Owen Langdon yields a lonely, sexless marriage cut short by his death in a car accident. Her ensuing affair with Charlie, her husband's amiable business associate, is arid and yet she never summons the courage to break up with him. That relationship ends, like her marriage, with his death: “Oddly enough it was not Charlie that I missed, but rather the person for whom Charlie had always been a substitute, whoever he was.”

But it is Fay's ambivalence toward Charlie's wife, Julia, that provokes Fay to her most searching introspection. Glamorous, famous and manipulative, Julia, a former cabaret star, is the counter-point to Fay's restraint. “She liked danger,” Fay says of Julia. “Which was why I found her alarming.” And fascinating, too. Julia is a kind of shadow-figure acting out the imperious rage Fay always squelches and radiating the amoral sexuality Fay denies in herself.

Although much of this novel is Fay recalling her marriage and subsequent adultery of many years, not one erotic moment makes its way to the page. What she remembers is “the hopelessness of desire,” the details of passion subsumed by her despair. Hers is a naive sensibility formed by the romantic movies she saw as a child and by the love songs she sang during her own minor career as a radio chanteuse. Shortly before Julia departed for Spain to live out, with her son, her remaining years. Fay remembers, Julia spoke to her for the last time: “‘You're not a bad little thing,’ she said, carelessly, but with Julia nothing was unplanned. ‘Silly, like all women. But I doubt if there was ever any harm in you.’ So ended my thraldom.”

Unburdened of that troubled alliance, alone now, her last significant tie sundered, Fay contemplates “myself, growing old alone, with all hope gone.” She becomes grateful for “my little routines and pleasures,” for a volunteer job that keeps her “out and active every day,” for a stoicism that helps her survive the dreaded weekends. And, when at last she learns of Julia's death, Fay has a momentary fantasy in which she asks her facile friend what it was like to die. “‘Not all that bad,’ I can hear her say, in her most famously throw-away tone. ‘You might give it a try one of these days.’”

How wise of Anita Brookner to end this accomplished novel in Julia's voice, which thus becomes Fay's own voice as Fay's practiced earnestness yields to an ironic flourish, a stylish curtain call at the finale of a valiant performance.

If Brief Lives challenges readers to enter the life of a character’ bent on subverting our appetite for a drama that shocks, this meditative and intelligent narrative offers consoling pleasures. Here the tension emerges from Fay's inner struggle to maintain her dignity, to accept her given nature, to let go of bitterness and achieve some final interior reconciliation with those people she has tried, however awkwardly, to love. In her old age, she “felt a grief that was not merely personalized but general, and an unwilling solidarity with all female destinies.” That empathy, which Fay comes to late, informs all of Anita Brookner's novels. Brief Lives is yet another instance of her large and knowing heart.

Carolyn Cooke (review date 9 September 1991)

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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.

Dodworth (doddering but worthy) is a widow of a certain age, a former singer of popular ballads on radio who, years ago, threw up her career to marry. Marrying slightly above herself, marrying for love was, Fay now realizes, a mistake. Marriage, the hoped-for denouement of the short story of youth in Jane Austen's novels, turns out, in Brookner's late day, to be based on lies, misalliances, each couple a handwoven tapestry threaded with its own pattern of unhappiness. In exchange for her heart, Fay got thirty years in haute suburban oblivion—“engraved wine glasses … [a] bed big enough for the birth of royalty, the winsome fresco in the bathroom.” In late middle age, time for writing up a life's page of regrets, Fay realizes that she would sacrifice everything for “a bunch of blue carnations, magnificently vulgar, from the market. I began to discern depths of superficiality and bad taste in myself which I could see were not wholly regrettable.”

The remainder of the novel is, in one sense, Fay's effort to cultivate a patch of superficiality and bad taste, to salt in a black spot on her otherwise sterling character. It is this subtle form of social breakdown—like Marianne's stifled scream in Austen's Sense and Sensibility—that most interests Brookner. The beauty of her heroines is their restraint in their unraveling. There is a crispness and poignancy to Fay's reflection that

those old songs that I used to sing, when I was innocent of their longing, do not haunt me. If I were to succumb to them again the pain would be immeasurable. They would remind me of the durability, the hopelessness of desire, as if underneath all experience lurks the child's bewilderment, Why do you not love me? say the songs. And if I love you, why do I still yearn for something beyond? These songs seem to me profound because they underline a rather sophisticated acknowledgment, namely that the act of love is finite and that what is being voiced is not only the disappointment of this but one's exacerbated need for a permanent transformation, exacerbated, that is, by the act of love itself.

Brookner employs her miniaturist's sense of event—of the magnitude, even the enormity, of everyday life—to reinforce this theme:

The child, whose hair was about to be cut for the first time, screamed with terror and clung to her mother. The hairdresser stood by gravely, comb in hand: he recognized that this was a serious moment. The mother, blushing, tried to comfort the child who had suddenly plunged into despair; all around the shop women smiled in sympathy. What impressed me, and what I particularly remember, was the child's passionate attempt to re-enter her mother, the arms locked around the woman's neck, the terrified cries of unending love. So dangerous it is to be so close! I had tears in my eyes witnessing that bond, seeing that closeness, of which only a sorrowful memory remains in my own life. One loses the capacity to grieve as a child grieves or to rage as a child rages: hotly, despairing, with tears of passion.

The world view represented here sets Brookner apart from most of her contemporaries—Barbara Pym, Muriel Spark, Fay Weldon—for whom the ability to rage is directly, not inversely, proportional to experience and years. Brookner is probably the least funny, least bitingly witty of British women writers, and yet she is the most deeply satisfying. In the typical Brookner novel, a childless woman of uncertain years, cast adrift from her husband, finds solace in beauty or in keeping up appearances or in wine, and questions whether the self is really a loyal ally and whether personal dignity is worth the cost.

It bears noting that Brief Lives, like Muriel Spark's Memento Mori, belongs to the rather rare genus of novel that turns on characters facing the depredations of age—lost faculties, hand tremors, boredom, loneliness, deafness, arthritis, obituaries, senility—yet having the freedom to speak their mind. But where Spark treats the issue of old age with unsentimental and mordant wit—Granny Barnacle sends out once a week for a will form from Woolworth's and asks for help spelling words such as “hundred” and “ermine”—Brookner focuses on the philosophical dimensions of aging. Like the butler in Kazuo Ishiguro's Remains of the Day (and Ishiguro's cool, brilliant prose is strikingly similar to Brookner's in tone and affect), Fay Dodworth holds to superannuated, British standards of dignity and right living and, at the far end of a stuffy life, questions them. Her fault, like that of Ishiguro's butler, is solipsism—the disciplined, lifelong perfection of the self that alienates it from the world, and the emptiness at the end that one dares not name.

In spite of a dearth of reasonable, lovable men, Fay is reluctant to live alone, to lead an unwitnessed life. Which brings us back, for a moment, to the idea of life experience making one venerable or brittle. Fay's mother is an object lesson in what corner of the earth the meek inherit: “The sight of an abandoned plate containing a biscuit from which a minute bite has been taken, as if by a child, and which my mother had felt unable to finish, affected me inordinately. It was the first thing I found when I entered the house after her death. It was her last meal.”

Opposite in every respect to Fay's brittle mother as a role model for old age is Julia Wilberforce (will by force). Julia is brazen and demanding, yet venerable; toward her, Fay feels the duty of a relation—she did not have the luxury of choosing Julia as a friend. Through Julia's story and her own, Fay chronicles their parallel lives: the strange and surprising loneliness of marriage, the tenacity of childhood dreams, the brief hollow, in life, between youth and promise to disempowerment and old age.

Julia is the extreme character, and through her Fay defines her own more shadowy outline. Julia clearly represents the “superficiality and bad taste” that Fay is tending in her own spirit, and yet Fay reacts with a mixture of horror and sympathy: “Somewhere in the remote fastness of [Julia's] being, a long way behind the eyelids, and the ringed hand clutching a glass of whisky, she was a girl, but a girl of a rather lost variety, dreaming, unawakened, incurious, almost pure.” Julia is glamorous but hollow, practically unconscious. Fay is plain, deep and naggingly aware. Part of Fay's triumph in the novel—if it is a triumph to acquiesce in old age—is in her repudiation of Julia and her old self. When Fay admits that she does not know how to live, such social agnosticism from someone to whom character has always meant everything affords a radical picture: a woman of quality, belly up and gasping for air.

Like Austen's Elizabeth Bennet, or Elinor and Marianne Dashwood, Brookner's heroines operate within a demanding society that requires perfect figure skating across the slipperiest surfaces of public life. Alienated from nature by civilization, insulated by property and subordinate to men, they lack intense involvement in either love or work; society is entertainment and protection. Lacking love, lacking meaningful work, Fay aspires to usefulness, to the crisp efficiency of a day organized to the rhythm of a Strauss polka. Usefulness is her penance: “I had always wanted to be good,” she confesses, “yet had turned out to be flawed.”

Brookner's sentences resonate with right words and truth; she is an elegant stylist, a veined, unblinking eye on the inner panorama. Brief Lives breaks no new ground in her oeuvre, but it stands with her best work on the ultimate triumph of Woman Alone. Brookner, who is also an art historian and the first woman to hold the post of Slade Professor at Cambridge University, writes novels reminiscent of Turner paintings—dull colors under violent, apocalyptic skies; books that enclose you in their extraordinary weather, the storm and crack of ordinary lives as they snap suddenly into wholeness.

Jane Smiley (review date 22 March 1992)

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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 television news correspondent, who has never treated her well and never will. Harriet finds herself unexpectedly drawn to her friend's lover, but she is so self-effacing that her entire relationship to him takes place solely in her own mind. Each couple produces a daughter.

Harriet's perception of and relationship to her daughter, Imogen, are carefully drawn. Imogen is a fiery beauty whose looks and spirit will gain her, in Harriet's estimation, special rights and privileges in the very narrow world of female duty and domesticity that Harriet inhabits. While she never questions the strictures of that world for herself, Harriet glories in the idea that Immy is destined to turn its disadvantages to her own use. By contrast, she pities Lizzie, her friend's child, for being colorless and not just unloved, but undeserving of love. Harriet makes no demands upon Immy. In the end, she turns out as spoiled and careless as Harriet's intimates, if she had any, would have predicted.

Harriet's world is depicted as a world where all forms of intimacy, both inside the family and with friends, are decidedly lacking, and perhaps not even possible. Brookner suggests that the narcissism of Harriet's parents is the root cause, but no character offers Harriet a real connection. On the contrary, Brookner shows that Harriet fits nicely into her world, and is just what her associates expect her to be—she dresses well, she has beautiful hair, she considers her husband's wishes in all things and devotes herself to his health, she asserts no desires of her own, she is eternally patient with her obstreperous child. In the end, though, she has made no real connections to anyone around her, and others suffer from this as much as or more than she does—her daughter self-destructs having never known anything but egocentric hedonism; her husband's unrelieved loneliness closes more and more around him as he approaches death; Lizzie, the friend's daughter, seems doomed to her own style of unloved isolation.

A Closed Eye is an English novel about a social class and social mores that may seem unbelievable to American readers. The parents, for example, freely dislike their children, and willingly unburden themselves of the children's presence as soon as they can send them to boarding school, at 10 years old. In turn, the children freely dislike their parents—Immy prefers to watch television with the housekeeper. Friendships formed early in life—during her own school years—are the only ones Harriet ever has, and those seem to be sustained by meetings and lunches that are years apart. As a result of Harriet's isolation, every passing mention of the dangerous and sexy television newsman becomes a red-letter event in her life. No other events or meetings give these moments any context. Harriet seems more fatally restricted by her chilly social world than the Islamic women of Naguib Mahfouz's works, who never leave their houses after marriage but at least spend joyful hours confiding in their children and servants.

Harriet's story is quietly profound, and Brookner's control over the material is absolute. She never urges an interpretation of Harriet's life upon the reader, and yet its implications are fully present. As subtly and lucidly as can be, Brookner makes the case that if women fail to claim their lives, their self-respect and their desires, the very pain they sought to avoid returns to them many-fold.

Constance Casey (review date 12 April 1992)

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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 she come, taking care to remember that “one name must never be mentioned”? The question of whose name must never be mentioned does its job, giving the novel a wiry suspense up to the end.

Harriet then tells the story of her life. When she was born at the start of World War II, her parents were “so young, so dashing, that Harriet's birth passed almost unnoticed.” Her father, a pilot in the Royal Air Force, returned from a German prison camp docile and childish. But his daughter was content when he brought her weak tea and a doughnut on a cracked plate as she did her homework in the warm room behind her mother's dress shop. Harriet has a birthmark, reddened skin under both eyes, which, though easily hidden with makeup, makes her feel unattractive and undeserving of fuller pleasures, stronger tea, an uncracked plate.

Harriet is also happy in secondary school with three glamorous and self-assured friends, including Tessa, who will grow up to be Lizzie's mother, and even happier, a little later, walking home from secretarial school. “Even at the age of 20 she perceived the beauty of this,” Ms Brookner writes, “the virtue of doing a day's work and receiving the reward, the legitimate reward, of the lighted streets and the buses, and the girls—like herself—in their smart, cheap clothes.”

This modest idyll ends when Freddie, a wartime friend of her father's, turns up, divorced. A firm hint from her mother—“We'd like to enjoy life while we still can”—seals Harriet's gloomy deal. From Freddie, Harriet's parents get financial backing and a Brighton flat they love; Harriet gets respectability and a pompous house she hates.

Though Harriet feels protected, her marriage is a disappointment. Freddie's “taciturnity, so soothing and reliable in the daytime, vanished at night, when he was ardent, even violent, careless of her, briefly unknowable, occasionally foul-mouthed.”

Freddie never asks about Harriet's response, for which she is grateful. Ms Brookner tells us that Harriet wouldn't have known “whether to be gallant or to tell the truth.”

She would have been gallant, certainly. There are only two moments in her life when Harriet stops being noble and feels strong, almost selfish. First, when she is pregnant with her daughter, and feels substantial and legitimate. The second is when she falls in love with a handsome cad, who happens to be Tessa's husband.

That setup leads to satisfying turns of plot. For all its bleakness, A Closed Eye is a delight to read. There is a six-carat, brilliant-cut seduction (or near-seduction, or anti-seduction) scene in the middle of the book. Ms Brookner's running description of two children, from infancy to first job, is a rarer feat. There's a wonderful scene in which the two little girls—Tessa's wary, stoic Lizzie and Harriet's dazzling, beautiful Imogen—go to see “Swan Lake.” The most loving portrait is of Lizzie, an unlovable child, essentially deserted by her careless mother and father. Imogen, pampered and doted on, grows up to be a voracious moneymaker—more Margaret Thatcher's child than Harriet's.

Ms Brookner stacks the deck for these two mothers and two daughters in a way that's disturbing. Tessa, who marries for love, is punished; Imogen, demanding and ambitious, is also smacked down by the author. Lizzie and Harriet, two women who accept disappointment, go unpunished, except for their disappointment. It is the bleak who inherit the earth.

In an introduction she wrote to an Edith Wharton collection, Anita Brookner said that Wharton's novels, though about “doomed attempts to challenge the social code,” also established “the very real validity of the Dionysiac impulse at work in the challenges.” Like Wharton's heroines, Harriet is up against very tenacious social codes, but her creator doesn't give her a fighting chance. Rarely has the Dionysiac impulse been so smothered as it is in A Closed Eye.

Ursula Hegi (review date 10 January 1993)

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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 behavior does not permit for private thoughts and feelings to be expressed.

In Fraud, Miss Brookner explores relationships between elderly parents and their grown children, the most tragic the bond between Anna Durrant and her vain, selfish mother. Before Anna's mother dies, she admits to her reluctant friend, Mrs. Marsh, that she has kept her daughter from living her own life. “I clung to her, I admit. She was so strong, so good.” Yet Anna's mother uses this confession only to manipulate, Mrs. Marsh into accepting a letter, to be handed to Anna after her death, encumbering her daughter even then with her “hellish and absorbing love.”

Without the “small pleasing rituals” of her mother's company, Anna feels lonely and desperate. Already anorexic, she becomes increasingly indifferent to food. Her days are too long. In her terrible isolation, she relies on sleeping pills for release.

As Miss Brookner takes us through the years leading up to Anna's disappearance, it becomes evident that she vanished long before her family doctor reported her missing: Anna ceased to exist when she was a girl and fell into the vortex of her mother's cloying needs. But what keeps Anna from being a victim is Miss Brookner's compassionate refusal to absolve her from this “pleasant collaboration of unrealities, each secretly knowing that she was making a sacrifice for the other.”

When does a parent's love become destructive? Miss Brookner keeps returning to this question. Anna's only friend, Marie-France Forestier, lives in Paris, controlled by an aging father who expects her to keep his house and obey his commands The women's long-distance friendship has been held together by 30 years of cheerful letters that leave out anything unpleasant: “They extolled the joys of spinsterhood, never hinting at its pains.” Like Anna, Marie-France lives with the curse of being a good woman; both have repressed their needs and have dreamed of some freedom from their parents. Yet when, at age 60, Marie-France is finally allowed to marry, it is with the understanding that she will move her husband into her father's house.

Additional variations of the parent-child theme are played out through some of the other characters. The most significant, in its impact on Anna, is the relationship that her doctor, Lawrence Halliday, had with his patient and adoring mother. He is still drawn to women who sacrifice themselves. Like his mother. Like Anna Durrant. But he is afraid to propose marriage to Anna, “whose presence would have absorbed all hurts.”

In an intricate tapestry of perspectives, Miss Brookner gives us different views of Anna and those around her As we are taken into their speculations about one another, and into thoughts they would never share, we come to know them more completely than they know one another or themselves. Yet, after guiding us through each subtle shift within their lives, Miss Brookner rushes into an ending that seems very unconvincing. Though the potential for transformation exists within Anna's character, the way in which Miss Brookner presents it is too abrupt, too convenient. However, up to those last five pages, Fraud is an immensely satisfying novel with unsettling insights into what can happen when the boundaries between aging parents and their children dissolve.

Gisèle Marie Baxter (essay date Summer 1993)

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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 Sam Pollit, Stead takes popular cultural perceptions of Mark Twain and Charles Dickens (rather than the substance of any text either produced) and makes them tools of characterization and, by extension, of social criticism. She does so by appropriating ‘human images that had been displaced from the relatively autonomous realm of literature into the culture at large, then combines those images, and [she] sets them to work again within a new piece of literature, which allows for a fresh exploration of their possible effects, thus giving them a different force when they again are shifted from her literary work into the larger culture, and her readers’ lives'. Brookner ultimately does the same sort of thing with Virginia Woolf in Hotel du Lac. In her first two novels, her use of specific literary texts arises from her interest in a deluded approach taken to texts as guides. Brookner argues that ‘the lessons taught in great books are misleading. The commerce in life is rarely so simple and never so just'. She extends this interest to a broad range of cultural phenomena, which she makes tools of her ambiguous social criticism, while exploring them as signs of cultural displacement and the conflict between personal and social forms of identity. I propose to explore this representation in three quite similar early novels: A Start in Life (1981), Providence (1982) and especially Hotel du Lac (1984). Arac says of Stead's The Man Who Loved Children that ‘it not only enacts but represents the process’ of refunctioning. This is true regarding the treatment of various cultural phenomena in Brookner's fiction as well; some signify the means by which these women try to gain acceptance, while always underlining the reasons they are marginalized, but the treatment of literary influence represents their ways of coping with life on the periphery of a closed circle.

Brookner's protagonists are incapable of becoming what their culturally displaced parents (at least one is always of Continental origins or background) would have wished or what they want to escape into being. Like Ruth Weiss in A Start in Life and Kitty Maule in Providence, Hotel du Lac's Edith Hope is dislocated by her inability to reconcile her upbringing with her desires, in a life for which she is well-suited intellectually and temperamentally but ill-equipped socially. (Ruth and Kitty are academics; Edith writes popular romantic fiction.) Despite their maturity in years, all three seem childlike in their lack of cynicism and their eager desire to please. Yet they have never known innocence or freedom; they have had to dwell in the shadows of and be responsible for culturally alienated, immature parents. They are burdened by the discipline if not the substance of belief, by an artificially imposed morality which has more to do with books than experience, or more with the surface than the substance of custom. Brookner claims the ‘moral rectitude’ of her characters ‘comes from a grounding in nineteenth-century novels and nineteenth-century behaviour'. This deliberate anachronism robs all three of effective manipulative skills, yet contributes to the fascination with a class-specific ‘Englishness’ that determines their choice of cultural experiences.

Brookner explores her protagonists’ dislocation and reveals their self-definition and capacity for delusion chiefly through three cultural phenomena: apparel and physical presentation, relationships with men, and texts used as guides, or; clothes, men and books. Taken together, these phenomena reflect various modes of existence: contemplative and private, sexual and social. Choices regarding them are influenced by the way ancestry informs each protagonist's adult identity. In all three families, erratic flamboyancy is contrasted with a sense of order and tradition. Edith is reasonably forgiving of her parents and cognizant of their adulthood, perhaps because they are both dead and she has assimilated their memories into the accumulation of her own adult experience. The exaggerated childishness of the Weisses or the Maules becomes in the Hopes a concurrent interdependence and incompatibility of people who are dissimilar yet both displaced, inadequate and too self-absorbed to nurture a child. In all three cases, cultural displacement means a sense of lost order or value. This leads to a preoccupation on the daughter's part with appropriateness and ‘Englishness', and a misplaced trust in any cultural phenomena she takes as signs of belonging.

Ruth assimilates the past by accepting her grandmother's cutlery and ultimately adopting her role as caregiver; Kitty allows her dressmaker grandmother to attire her and so presents herself neither naturally nor manipulatively. For Edith, the process is more subtle. Her mother's obsolescence is defined more through behaviour than physical detail (though all three novels emphasize cluttered, airless rooms):

Her strange mother, Rosa, that harsh disappointed woman, that former beauty who raged so unsuccessfully against her fate, deliberately, wilfully letting herself go, slatternly and scornful, mocking her pale silent daughter who slipped so modestly in and out of her aromatic bedroom, bringing the cups of coffee which her mother deliberately spilled. And shouting, “Too weak! Too weak! All of you, too weak!” Sighing for Vienna, which had known her young and brilliant, and not fat and slovenly, as she was now. (Hotel

Although her life is not as obviously structured by ancestral influence as Ruth's or Kitty's, Edith is at least partly aware that her work, her style, even her attitudes towards men, bear her mother's influence in their contradiction of her mother's way of life.

One of the most striking evocations of Edith's personal style is a description partly detached from her perspective: ‘Dressed for dinner, in her Liberty silk smock, her long narrow feet tamed into plain kid pumps, Edith sought for ways of delaying the moment at which she would be forced to descend into the dining room and take her first mean in public’ (Hotel). Edith is not consciously preoccupied with clothes, yet her choice of attire reflects her awkwardness and misplaced obsessions. The Liberty silk dress and plain kid pumps do not imply the artlessness of Monica's ‘crepe de Chine blouse hanging rather gauntly from her long neck and narrow shoulders’ (Hotel), the unconscious correctness of Madame de Bonneuil's plain gowns, or the manipulativeness behind the elaborate, assertive attire of the Puseys or Penelope Milne. These others all represent a level of confidence and social integration Edith only partly admires and never achieves. The contrast between such people and the protagonist informs Providence (where the admiration of them is greater) more explicitly. The delicate and scrupulously well-dressed Kitty feels inadequate beside the unaffected, inherently sexual charm of Maurice Bishop and Jane Fairchild, the undeluded disregard for fashion of her colleague Pauline, and the deliberate flamboyance of her neighbour Caroline. Pauline says of Kitty ‘that she gives the impression of someone not quite at home here’ (Providence), an assessment which could apply to the appearance of all three protagonists, and which suggests a link between physical presentation and cultural displacement. They lack the sense of security which would allow them to dress with greater ease, and the cunning to do so with obvious purpose. Ironically, such confidence and cunning are characteristic of those on the inside of the English mystique, so they lack the very tools they need. Consequently, like Edith in her Liberty silk dress, they are clothed through external influence (advice of others or choice of role models), and are at once appropriate and uncomfortable. All three do experiment with deliberate dressing, yet Brookner carefully makes her descriptions of their altered appearance qualify whatever success they attain. When Edith changes her hairstyle and puts on a new dress and perfume, this behaviour is a prelude not to some bold venture, but to her habitual writing and dinner. The reactions of the Puseys indicate her apparent success: Jennifer's approbation is the recognition of feminine wiles; Mrs. Pusey's disapproval concedes the threat these wiles imply. However, Brookner qualifies the attire chosen by revealing that Monica has suggested this more glamorous dress, and that once attired, Edith ‘paced up and down in her room, unwilling to exchange her silence for the pleasantries of the evening’ (Hotel). Silence, insularity and passivity are characteristic of all these women; even when most assertive, they dress not so much to be noticed as to be accepted while retaining their privacy. Nevertheless, they are noticed, because they never quite belong.

In a personal as well as this generally social sense, Brookner's women desire acceptance. They believe a socially integrated identity would impose order on an existence which to them is chaotic or absurd. Thus, they idealize a domestic, romantic love as part of their fascination with ‘Englishness'. Ruth's relationships with men—with the egotistical Richard Hirst, with her older, married lover Professor Duplessis, even with her short-lived husband Roddy—enact her desire to abandon the fractured world of her parents and their housekeeper, in their apartment where life ‘was lived on the periphery; the main rooms no longer had any function’ (Start). Although occasionally intrigued by the faded glamour of this life, she longs for structure and purpose, which are partly granted by her studies, yet she remains alone. Hence, she mostly expresses love through performing the conventionally wifely function of cooking.

All three protagonists display little interest in food unless they are feeding a man. The preparation and consumption of food serve more as a metaphor for power in their relationships than for sexual attraction and activity. The man tends to consume while the woman watches; eating never becomes a shared domestic activity. Edith, whose relationship with David is primarily sexual, reflects during her exile to the Hotel du Lac,

Her own appetite was gone, quite gone. It hardly mattered what she ate these days, since she no longer mattered to herself. But those lovely meals that she cooked for David, those heroic fry-ups, those blow-outs that he always seemed to require when they eventually got out of bed, at such awkward times, after midnight, sometimes, leaving it till the last minute before he raced back to Holland Park through the silent streets. ‘I never get this stuff at home,’ he would say lovingly, spearing a chip and inserting it into the yolk of a fried egg. Anxious, in her nightgown, she would watch him, a saucepan of baked beans to hand. Judging the state of his appetite with the eye of an expert, she would take another dish and ladle on to his plate a quivering mound of egg custard. (Hotel

This option of subservience results from what these men represent. In A Start in Life and Providence, Brookner is explicit: Richard Hirst and Maurice Bishop stand for socially integrated, traditional values represented by a religious faith which reflects the security of their position, while the atheism or agnosticism of the women reflects their sense of fragmentation. The protagonists insist on domestic elements in their relationships because they want the possibilities of order and social acceptability which Kitty decides a certain sort of man can represent:

I want to be part of a real family. I want my father to be there and to shoot things. I do not want my grandmother to tell me what to wear. I want to wear jeans and old sweaters belonging to my brother whom of course I do not have. I do not want to spend my life in this rotten little flat. I want wedding presents. I want to be half of a recognized couple. I want a future away from this place. I want Maurice. (Providence

The contrast in appearance of Kitty and Maurice underlines his appeal for her: Kitty is ‘artfully put together', a passive qualification, while Maurice is ‘ineffably natural', an innate quality (Providence); he lacks her self-consciousness and artifice. However, his Englishness is the core of both his allure and his impermeability. Kitty realizes that she has rejected her French heritage and made a photograph of her dead father ‘her image of England just as she had made Maurice her ideal of England’ (Providence), yet elsewhere she admits that Maurice's smile ‘closed her out, while closing in something highly significant, something that she did not know, something foreign to her’ (Providence). This allure of English stability becomes part of the dilemma Edith confronts in Hotel du Lac. Edith is involved with rather than in pursuit of David, who is contrasted not so much with her as with Philip Neville. The attraction of both men involves conventional qualities of upper-middle-class Englishness. Though suggesting different periods, each represents a pragmatic approach to life which replaces the Christianity of the earlier love objects, and, again, a financially secure, predictable existence. The contrast is largely in the sort of limited involvement each offers Edith: while with David she has a clandestine, primarily physical affair, with Mr. Neville she would have a socially acceptable, yet passionless marriage.

The men themselves are of similar social position and reflect not so much the sort of landed tradition Kitty sees in Maurice as the financial success ethic of the Thatcher era in England. Although her philosophical concerns are not so explicitly outlined as in the earlier novels. Brookner's sense of social contemporaneity is strongest in Hotel du Lac. The self-absorbed mercantilism and materialism of her English characters, especially Mr. Neville and the Puseys, belong very much to the late twentieth century. These qualities are contrasted with those of people who have both ‘old money’—Monica and Madame de Bonneuil—and cultural tradition. Similarly, the young urban professional David's vapidity is suggested by the vagueness of his physical description (he is only ‘a tall, lean, foxy man’ with ‘a long nose'; Hotel), but he and his wife embody for Edith a contemporary English form of adulthood, ‘a world of, among other things, investments, roof repairs, visitors for the weekend. And shall we take your car or mine? That was one of the remarks that she had overheard David make to his wife, and it had come to possess an almost totemic significance’ (Hotel). On the other hand, Mr. Neville is a man of principle, and since Edith never loves him (although she admits the logic of his analyses), she can observe him more objectively.

I suppose Mr. Neville is what was once called a man of quality. He conducts himself altogether gracefully. He is well turned out, she thought, surveying the panama hat and the linen jacket. He is even good-looking; an eighteenth-century face, fine, reticent, full-lipped, with a faint bluish gleam of beard just visible beneath the healthy skin. A heartless man, I think. Furiously intelligent. Suitable. Oh David, David. (Hotel

Patricia Waugh writes of Brookner's protagonists that ‘[their] moral strengths function as weakness in the patriarchal, consumerist, and acquisitive world of the post-1960s, and they themselves internalize this disparaging view of their qualities, resulting in a perpetually low self-esteem’. I would add that this perceived social inferiority always coincides and conflicts with a strong sense of personal identity which prevents them from entirely abandoning their moral codes. Their choices of cultural experience are not a simple desire to ‘pass'. By Hotel du Lac, these choices are complicated by a desire for love which surpasses the desire for acceptance. The belief in and pursuit of ‘love’ are to Edith what the desire for social integration and an ordered existence are for Ruth and Kitty. Brookner suggests an inadequacy of this principle through David himself, who does not return Edith's passion, and through Edith's own desire for social normality, a desire which attracts her to both men she nearly deserts David to marry: the kindly Geoffrey Long, who simply offers passionless propriety without any stated philosophy to justify it, and Mr. Neville. However, the pragmatism of the latter is no alternative, because Edith (unlike Ruth or Kitty) recognizes that dislocation is her identity, that in the clear separation of dissonant elements which would permit choice, she would have to sacrifice part of herself to make a choice. Pure pragmatism is for her dangerous, as she realizes when she discovers her error in assuming Jennifer to be innocent, and decides to reject Mr. Neville.

More than by clothes or men, all three women find their problems of identity complicated by their application of literature to life. After all, in literature they are seeking more than a way into the centre; they are seeking some truth about existence. Yet they misread their chosen texts by imposing what they want to believe on them. Ruth and Kitty fail to realize that the lives of the fictional heroines with whom they are intrigued have been ordered by an intelligence and related through a perspective different from their own (and from Brookner's). Ruth comes closest to making the connection, through her various attempts to relate Honore de Balzac's novels to the course of her life, but when Kitty confesses ‘I lacked the information’ (Providence), she could be speaking for herself and Edith. Both live by illusions because they lack the assertiveness to find things out or they assume that other people's definitions coincide with theirs. Hence, Kitty cannot read the signals of Maurice's involvement with Jane Fairchild, and Edith misjudges virtually everything she impulsively defines, from Monica's social position to the Puseys’ ages.

As I suggested at the outset, Brookner makes more explicit use of her literary subtexts in both earlier novels. The outcome of Eugenie's fortunes in Balzac's Eugenie Grandet parallels that of Ruth's—both are deceived and disappointed in love—but Brookner's narrative voice is not Balzac's, and Eugenie is not dislocated in the way Ruth is, as a comparison of introductory passages attests. Balzac's initial description of a house in a village merges general and particular elements, yet in merging, they retain their separate integrity; this is not the fluctuating impressionism of the description which opens Hotel du Lac. A specific place becomes a microcosm of France and the actions of the characters become typical of human nature, yet the characters retain their own interest. Conversely, A Start in Life begins by providing both Ruth's own perception of her dilemma and a generalized external perspective of her. Brookner reveals Ruth's fluctuating transparency and opacity, as well as the limitations in self-awareness of this woman who ‘blamed her looks on literature … Her appearance and character were exactly half-way between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries; she was scrupulous, passionate, thoughtful, and given to self-analysis, but her colleagues thought her merely scrupulous, nothing her neatness with approval, and assuming that her absent and slightly haggard expression denoted a tricky passage in Balzac. In fact she was extreme in her expectations and although those expectations had never been fulfilled she had learnt nothing’ (Start). Most significantly, Brookner introduces Ruth's preoccupation with texts as guides, and her struggle to decide whether to accept a romantic or virtuous (European or English) approach to life: her ‘moral education’ has ‘dictated, through the conflicting but in this one case united agencies of her mother and father, that she ponder the careers of Anna Karenina and Emma Bovary, but that she emulate those of David Copperfield and Little Dorrit’ (Start). Balzac presents Eugenie in the context of the external forces that shape and betray her; Brookner depicts the effects of those forces at work from the perspective of the protagonist who fails to recognize them. Also, whereas Eugenie retains her religious faith despite the vagaries of the world, Ruth lacks such a totalizing principle, although she is drawn to a systematic interpretation of life: she wants at once a reliable moral code and a sense of integration amongst fairly amoral people.

The relationship of literature and life in Providence is rendered with greater irony. Kitty Maule detaches the contingencies of living from her area of study, the Romantic Tradition, and particularly the anomalous text she teaches, Benjamin Constant's Adolphe. More than Edith or Ruth, Kitty not only concedes a division between her work and private life, but between the nature of her work and her concerns: ‘Real life seems to impose such insuperable problems that it is quite restful to think about something entirely different and for which I take no responsibility’ (Providence). Yet, in a way, she desperately wants to make a connection, to believe that her interpretation of this text has validity in her own life. What fascinates her about Adolphe is its structural emphasis on the power of words in their purity to convey unornamented information, ‘the juxtaposition of extremely dry language and extremely heated, almost uncontrollable sentiments…. [Even] if the despair is total, the control remains’ (Providence). While she might understand how the unsparing rationalism of Adolphe made his tale dissonant with an age of tremendous social and imaginative upheaval, she fails to see how her own perspective is that of Ellenore, his rejected yet misguidedly devoted mistress. Kitty misconstrues words, refusing to concede multiple levels of meaning, and overlooks the possibilities of chance (rather than providence or determinism) in an absurd universe. Hence, the word ‘love’ means something quite different to the ineffable, secure Maurice and the serious, questing Kitty. She not only lacks the information, she frequently lacks the capacity or the experience to know it exists.

In Hotel du Lac, Brookner does not relate her narrative to a specific informing text: she turns instead to the refunctioning of a more generalized cultural icon. Elaine Showalter, considering the weight of the past on contemporary English women's fiction, argues that ‘[in] trying to deal with this recognition of an ongoing struggle for personal and artistic autonomy, contemporary women writers have reasserted their continuity with the women of the past, through essays and criticism as well as through fiction. They use all the resources of the modern novel, including exploded chronology, dreams, myth, and stream-of-consciousness, but they have been profoundly influenced by nineteenth-century feminine literature, sometimes to the point of rewriting it'. Brookner's own cultural displacement lessens the appeal of this particular tradition for her. In her first two novels, she draws on French fiction of the early nineteenth century, incorporating it in the lives of Ruth and Kitty much as it entered hers: through study. In Hotel du Lac, she defines Edith's dislocation more subtly, through social myths associated with popular romantic (rather than historically Romantic) fiction. Yet despite the sort of fiction she produces, Edith adopts as literary icon a popular conception of Virginia Woolf, to define both her public and private personae.

Woolf is an ironic choice. The popular conception of romantic-fiction producers, like Barbara Cartland and Danielle Steele, seems to be of opulently materialistic, aggressively feminine women, more like Iris Pusey or Penelope Milne. Yet Edith seems to recognize this discrepancy in choosing a pseudonym, Vanessa Wilde, at once evocative of the fiction she writes and structurally reflective of her private muse's name. Her public Virginia Woolf persona receives little approbation from others. When her agent, ‘viewing the hollowed cheeks and the pursed lips', reflects that Edith appears ‘remarkably Bloomsburian’ (Hotel), he does so while mildly alarmed at her impassioned outburst in an exclusive restaurant. Elsewhere, Mr. Neville only sees unsuitable clothes and unhealthy looks in her affectation and urges her to get rid of her cardigan: ‘Whoever told you that you looked like Virginia Woolf did you a grave disservice, although I suppose you though it was a compliment’ (Hotel).

As well, her perception of the fiction she writes does not arise from critical and imaginative detachment; she is not an aspiring Woolf toying with popular culture. Although she has the freedom domestic and financial burdens Woolf felt necessary for artistic achievement, Edith writes sentimental novels which she claims recreate a wish-fulfilling cultural myth for essentially passive, mild-mannered women. In fact, Edith writes for herself and partly misjudges her audience. The only women revealed as readers of her work are the manipulative Iris Pusey and Penelope Milne, and Edith's mother, a thwarted manipulator. These books appeal to such women because they affirm a status quo in which this audience and its values can thrive.

According to Patricia Waugh, Edith writes ‘romances which are a plea for the acceptance of traditional courtship and marriage, but in her own life she reveals that these institutions cannot ultimately satisfy her own emotional and intellectual needs. Edith tends to blame herself, however, seeing her “innate disposition” as the source of her exclusion from wedded bliss. She feels unable, therefore, to identify with those women who seek to change the institutional basis of romance, and her writing seeks to contain protest, to protect her liberal view of the fatalistic working out of the human character. Brookner's novel as a whole, however, fails to suppress the contradictions inherent in this position'. Edith's connection to her fictional material underlines the ambiguity with which Brookner treats the relationship of fiction and reality in this novel. This ambiguity differs from the more straightforward criticism of texts as guides in A Start in Life, or the ironic treatment of delusion in Providence. Edith is both condemned to dislocation by her belief in romantic love and granted a creative means of accepting her situation by writing romantic fiction. For her, love is less a sublimated desire for social integration (as it seems to be for Ruth and Kitty) than an emotional principle which allows her to confess without irony to David in another unmailed letter, ‘You are the breath of life to me’ (Hotel). Unlike Ruth or Kitty in their pursuits, she realizes that David does not reciprocate this sentiment, yet she persists in wanting to give it expression in her life and can do this through her affair (futile as it is) with him and through her admittedly contrived fiction.

Similarly, her adoption of the Virginia Woolf persona both exacerbates her loneliness and permits her a privacy in which she is comfortably herself; she also has a genuinely Bloomsburian freedom of spirit her friends lack, which Brookner makes clear in Edith's rejection of marriage: she chooses to be socially unacceptable. She has a sense of home, of ‘a room of her own', if not a satisfactory social identity, and within her house and garden can attain the impressionistic appreciation of physical environment that characterizes much of Woolf's writing: ‘Sometimes it was still light when she went to bed, but as the light was of such very great interest to her she would put down her book just to watch it fade, and change colour, and finally become opaque and uninteresting’ (Hotel). Moreover, Patricia Waugh claims that Brookner's fiction ‘is similar to Woolf's in its perception of the relational basis of identity and its portrayal of her women characters’ obsessive need for and fear of connection'. Despite the sort of books Edith produces, she embodies in her life both independence and its cost, issues Woolf addressed in considering the social role of the woman artist.

Where this form of refunctioning approaches what Arac proposes is in Brookner's refusal to make any one novel of Virginia Woolf's a specific subtext of Hotel du Lac. Instead, she embeds, often ironically, aspects of Woolf's works in her own. For example, if Edith resembles Lily Briscoe of To the Lighthouse in her solitude and her real if limited vision, she longs for the domestic and social status of a Mrs. Ramsay, or a Clarissa Dalloway, only realizing at the eleventh hour the inherent loneliness and inauthenticity of this role. Yet Edith is never presented reading or reflecting on a Woolf text; her writer of choice during a moment of anxious leisure is Colette. This refusal challenges the reader to confront what constitutes ‘Virginia Woolf’ in the novel. While Hotel du Lac gains richness and subtlety through an awareness of the subtexts I have indicated, the reader need not be familiar with them to perceive what the Virginia Woolf persona as a popular icon consists of: the wan thinness, piled-up hair and cardigan (so much Edith's conception of herself that she is hardly aware of her own sensuality), the anxiety and talent for solitude, yet also the love of the garden, and the odd grace and toughness under the pressure to conform.

While the ending of Hotel du Lac is more encouraging than those of the earlier novels, it is also ambiguous. Edith seems in more subtle and quotidian ways caught between the polarities of the Romantic Tradition which strike Kitty: ‘the ability to stagger on through a life exaggeratedly devoid of normal happiness, or the ability to admit a radiant fragmentation of the mind that would put one out of the struggle altogether’ (Providence). Edith seems at the end to act with an authority quite unlike the bewilderment of Kitty or the passive stoicism of Ruth. However, her tearing up the only letter she would have mailed to David is a clearer rejection of closure than occurs in either other novel. She rejects stability based on bloodless pragmatism, even if she must still live in a social world defined more by this new rationalism than by traditional forms of totalization, and so must remain dislocated. She consigns herself to the possibility of heartbreak so that she can maintain her integrity. Yet to marry Mr. Neville would be, by Edith's principles, to consign herself to despair. According to Anita Brookner, ‘To remain pure a novel has to cast a moral puzzle', yet she also claims to have intended Hotel du Lac as ‘a love story pure and simple'. Her refunctioning both of conventional notions of romantic love and of Virginia Woolf as cultural icon permit Brookner to examine the dislocation inherent in Edith's conception of love and in that of the fiction she produces. By Anita Brookner's standards, then, to allow Edith to make a choice other than her ambiguous one would have been artistically dishonest.

The emphasis on stereotypical preoccupations of women could be read as a trivialization of Brookner's philosophical and cultural concerns, a case of reach exceeding grasp, or as a timid refusal to deal in depth with greater issues in favour of the neat enclosures of popular romantic fiction. Her protagonists, as much as they may ponder literature, also spend an inordinate amount of time fretting about their clothes and engaged in the man hunt. However, in these early novels, Brookner manipulates these stereotypes of the romance novel, to demonstrate how its idealized heroine would fare as a fully developed character in the England of the 1980s. Her protagonists fit the ideal conventions in many ways: they are demure, pretty but not overly, isolated and guileless little princesses. But Mr. Rochester in contemporary England does not marry plain faithful Jane. He marries the bold, secure inheritor of useful family connections, and reserves the other for comfort when his wife proves an embarrassment. Any contract she is offered is based on sexual gratification or social appearance, never on a principle of love. Yet Brookner's protagonists differ from their popular-romance counterparts in that their guilelessness is not innocence. They are marginalized as much by their own sense of moral identity as by the aspects of gender and culture that inform that identity. Brookner represents their social position (and their perception of it) through various forms of cultural iconography, particularly English. By Hotel du Lac, she suggests that strength and self-awareness are found not so much in finding an access to the inner circle, as in recognizing why you are on the periphery.

Frank Kermode (review date 19 June 1993)

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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 about their families. We know about Jane's Jewish grandmother in Maresfield Gardens, and about her mother (whom she resembles in her patience and lack of obvious dash and glitter), her placid banker father, and her uncle, who married Dolly.

We are similarly well informed on Dolly's antecedents: her mother, a divorced refugee, the soup always simmering on the stove, turned herself into a surprisingly successful Parisian courier. As a child Dolly made louche, jolly childhood friendships with the neighbourhood whores, and as a girl danced with American officers at the Crillon. Widowed, she assumes that the world, or rather Jane's mother, her sisters-in-law, owes her a living, which she demands almost with contempt, and even with resentment; for money she might have had, and obviously needed more than they, should not have gone to the mousy inhabitants of Prince of Wales Drive. After her mother's death this voluntary and thankless burden is assumed by Jane.

The central issue of the story is this relation between Jane and Dolly. The death of her parents leaves Jane rich, and perfectly ready to comply with the assumption that since she has the cash Dolly needs she must hand it over. The scheme looks simple enough: here is an antithetical relationship between two well-known Brooknerian types, the free, or apparently free, apparently bold and ardent for life, and the losers, or apparent losers—the sometimes envious unfree, who have intelligence and sensibility but lack passion or luck. In this case there is also a difference of generations and backgrounds: Dolly, née Jeanne-Marie Schiff, is echt European, Jane, inheriting the quiet manners of her parents, entirely English. The contrast makes one look more vivid and the other less alive; Dolly despises Jane, as she had her mother.

Brookner, as usual, contrives a painful climax, at one of those ghastly Christmas feastings in a south-coast hotel; the grotesque Dolly, her clothes absurd and with an unscrupulous lover in tow; Jane tricked, wretchedly insulted, and subjected to a sort of belated and parodic primal scene.

There is, however a variation on the pattern. That the rather Colettish, though also slightly Angus-Wilsonish, figure of Dolly, now abandoned by her lover, should sink into an incompetent but dignified solitude, was to be expected. But Jane, so alive from childhood, she tells us, to the feelings of adults, becomes a well-known writer for children, believing them all to have the same gift. Not interested in marriage, she finds herself considering her position among nice, worried American academic feminists. She is unwilling to confess her lack of agreement with their earnest anti-patriarchalism because to do so might introduce a notion of class difference, such as she had experienced while talking to the other women at a press-cutting agency in which she had once worked.

Dolly's trouble was partly that she belonged to a time (1970) when ‘women were not quite as at ease with themselves as they are today'; many of her antics, it now appeared, derived from this insecurity. Jane, on whom she increasingly depends, is perfectly easy, for she has learned a difficult lesson:

that love … could not be relied upon to find a worthy object, that it might attach itself to someone for whom one has felt distaste, even detestation.

The book is autumnal in colouring, reflecting Jane's favorite season in Battersea Park, with the vivid blue of her admired Wallace Collection Bouchers for contrast. Some would say that the portrait of Dolly is a little overdone, but I myself feel that the novel is as nearly perfect an instance of its genre as it is reasonable to ask.

David Galef (essay date Winter 1994)

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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 feed others and to fill their own void, the second need neglected by the first. As Geneen Roth has noted in When Food Is Love, those who do not receive sufficient love in childhood learn to compensate in other ways, and since nurturing is close to nutrition, the two often become indissolubly linked on both an emotional and a physical level.

Brookner's protagonists are usually aware of this linkage, but awareness in Brookner's world does not lead to action. This causes the piercing dilemma in so many of Brookner's novels: the main characters know what has formed them, and are seemingly too intelligent to be a party to compulsion—but they are anyway, inescapably so. In Freudian terms, they have reached the stage of realization, and occasionally even catharsis, but their personalities are set, and they cannot accomplish the working-through stage essential to a change of habits. Their attitudes toward food reflect this glum truth.

Since neurosis implies repetition, the reader can spot this behavior occurring again and again in the major novels. In The Debut, Ruth Weiss's childhood is rather hungry and loveless after the death of her grandmother, the main provider of meals and creature comforts. Even before this event, neglected by her parents, Ruth sees dining rooms as dark, “as if sodden with a miasma of gravy and tears.” Later, growing up under the casual auspices of the housekeeper, Mrs. Cutler, she eats mostly from tins and prepared foods.

Not surprisingly, the one elaborate meal she eventually cooks for a man is a disaster—but not from lack of culinary skill; rather, because she fails to take into account the careless, postprandial arrival of the egotistic male. She has confused his acceptance of food with an offer of love. “She did not realize that most men accept invitations to dinner simply in order to know where the next meal is coming from. Her father, who could have told her this, had not.” Still, timed ovens wait for no man, and when her guest, Richard Hirst, arrives over an hour and a half late, the dinner is ruined. Ironically, when she tires of hearing about his charity work, he accuses her of being selfish. And so she feels guilt—the kind of undeserved guilt that arises when women break free, if only momentarily, from their self-sacrificing role. This, as Nancy Chodorow has so aptly put it, is the reproduction of mothering. Later, as partial atonement, Ruth will forsake the life she is building in Paris to care for her father in London, and marry a man for whom she feels no affection, simply to fulfill her caretaking role.

In Sanford Radner's analysis: “One theme seems to emerge repeatedly: as adult men and women come together in the rituals of contemporary life … they unconsciously play out one key fantasy: a self-denying mother generously feeds her ungrateful son.” In fact, Radner is talking about the characters in Barbara Pym's work, but the theme applies with equal force to Brookner's people. Ruth (her name itself means both compassion and sadness) is doomed to take care of those oblivious to her solicitude, who take without providing in return.

Brookner's subsequent novel Providence provides a similar pattern in the protagonist, Kitty Maule. Again there are the absent or demanding parents: the father killed in the war, the mother a semi-recluse who dies, incidentally, at the dinner table. In short, the child's parents have not provided for her. If, as Chodorow observes, the mother-bond is personal and the father-bond is social and cultural. Brookner's protagonists are deprived in both areas. Like Ruth Weiss, Kitty has a grandmother with “an insistence on food, the centrality of food” —but, as in The Debut, the grandparents are from the Old World, the foreign order from which Kitty must depart. As Kim Chernin comments in The Hungry Self: to eat apart, to wean oneself away from the mother, is to forge an identity, but the new diet can become its own trap. By the time Kitty reaches adulthood, she has learned to feed herself, though she takes little joy in the procedure: “When dining alone, Kitty Maule tended to dispatch the meal as quickly as possible and also to distract herself from the actual business of eating.” Alone is a key word: here is a typically communal act performed, incongruously, in solitude.

She is most happy when feeding Maurice, her rakish fellow-academic who she wishes were her lover. The affair is more consomméed than consummated, however: he associates her with tomato soup more than any soupçon to mate. And herein lies the torment of Brookner's self-sacrificing women, put best, as usual, by the protagonist herself: “I do not want to be good at pleasing everybody. I do not even want to be such a good cook.” As Mary Anne Schofield has written, Brookner's protagonists should then go on to discover self-sufficiency and the pleasures of eating alone—but Schofield engages in wishful thinking in insisting that this is what actually occurs. At the end of Providence, Maurice has become engaged not to Kitty but to her attractive, dim-witted seminar student Miss Fairchild, and Kitty, surprised at the celebratory feast, can do nothing but sit down and attempt to eat. What Schofield interprets triumphantly as a sudden maturation is rather a depressing spectacle: an unwilling guest at a spiritual Barmecide.

In this way, food becomes an ambiguous emblem, indicative of love and yet a poor substitute for it. In Hotel du Lac, Edith Hope quietly sits at the elaborate meals served in the hotel dining room as an observer rather than a participator at life's feast. Significantly, she could not go through with the one grand meal she was a party to, her wedding reception. This is not so much a failure of nerve as a moral decision: she sees her soon-to-be bridegroom's “mouse-like seemliness” and decides she is not that type. Neither is she the kind to fall for the licentious Mr. Neville, who plans a marriage of convenience with her. She wants instead her married lover, David, who will not divorce his wife. Perhaps this is what Edith means when she reflects, “One is led to believe that one can pick and choose, but in fact there seems to be no choice at all.” This notion coincides with the cuisine at the hotel, which, though elegant, is rather predictable, with the only alternative to eat cakes, sweet but hardly nourishing, in the local café. In food as in human relations, Brookner shows how limited the menu is for a person of taste.

In The Misalliance, Brookner at least offers her protagonist a greater possibility of escape, but taste and habit again bar the way. Separated from her husband of twenty years, Blanche Vernon maintains her solitary household and cooks—and drinks—every day: cleaning and cooking lend the semblance of a now-vanished domestic scene, and drinking blurs the fact that no one else is around to appreciate it. She will even cook for her errant husband, who comes back on occasion out of either curiosity or hunger, perhaps both. She cooks admirably and yet has little appetite herself, displaying the “contradictory strategy of mastery and avoidance” that Chernin notes in many eating-disorder victims.

Blanche is a typical Brookner heroine: intelligent, hopeful and practically blameless. As Brookner puts it, “There was nothing of the predator in Blanche.” On the other hand, as Brookner also writes: “the world respects a predator”—the metaphor, significantly, is couched in terms of the eater and the eaten. Blanche herself realizes her limitations, shackled, as she says, by the wrong mythology: the notion that providers are rewarded. So far is this from the truth that Bertie, her husband, has taken up with an infantile attention-grabber nicknamed Mousie; and another woman, Sally, whose child Blanche covets and feeds, cannot even manage for herself. Neither Sally nor Mousie can cook; it is, in fact, their very incapacity, coupled with their rapacity, that draws men in. Blanche tries to remain self-possessed, but self-possession does not guarantee possession of others. Tragicomically, when Blanche finally gathers the resolve to set out on her own, her husband shows up on the doorstep, ready to be taken in again. The novel ends there, but presumably her need to feed others will override her inchoate stirrings of independence.

There is an etiology behind all this. Brookner depicts only famine as the alternative to feast, or, more accurately, a feast with no one to share it. This is no fascination with recipes, as Susan J. Leonardi has written about in the novels of E. F. Benson. Significantly, there are no recipes to follow in Brookner. For Brookner, food is an inadequate filling for emotional fulfillment, the kind of conclusion Barbara Pym reached in a 1977 letter she wrote to Philip Larkin: “When I was much younger unrequited love caused me to buy and eat halfpound slabs of Cadbury's coffee-milk chocolate.” The symptom is not all that complex, and one can see it in the characters of many contemporary women writers—Margaret Atwood in The Edible Woman, for instance. What differentiates Brookner's characters is not prognosis but cure: Atwood's characters eventually storm out of the kitchen, and at least one of Pym's characters becomes anorexic, while Brookner's continue to long for a decent soufflé and at least a halfway decent gentleman to eat it.

This is not to categorize Brookner as a romantic, however, or an idealist. Brookner's protagonists know how important food can be, what power it has. As Mary Steward Hammond writes of the husband in her poem “Making Breakfast”:

I look at his face,
that weak-kneed, that buffalo-eyed,
Samson-after-his-haircut face, all of him
burnished with grits and sausage
and fried apples and biscuits and my
power….

Compare this with Kitty Maule's feeding Maurice her portion of tomato salad and bread at a restaurant: “she could only concentrate on what she had in front of her: Maurice, captive, his mouth limpid with oil.” Clearly, more is at stake here than calories. Feeding is a way of establishing a sense of mastery, a relationship between the nurturer and the feeder. It is what Lacan might call a re-bonding with the Other, as the infant turns away from the mirror and back to the maternal breast.

But this kind of feeding can also be a means of revenge: too much heavy food can lead to debility, even a heart attack. There is, in fact, a double message in many contemporary food scenes—as Hammond writes: “an act / of aggressive hostility and/or a symptom / of repressed tractability.” Or, as Blanche Vernon tells her husband, on one of his occasional visits, “You are putting on a good deal of weight, I see. Have some more cake.” Similarly, in Family and Friends, the slim, dashing Frederick Dorn is so lavishly entertained by his female admirers that he becomes violin-shaped.

Brookner accomplishes a like revenge on gourmandizing women: the sumptuous Yvette in Latecomers turns heavy in middle age, and the daughter of the rich Mrs. Pusey in Hotel du Lac is described as having a bottom shaped like a large Victoria plum. Yet the revenge of the flesh is mixed, since these women do attract men while less nourished types do not. Repeatedly, Brookner describes periods of despondency in her protagonists’ lives as times when they grow thin and unattractive.

Is Brookner making an anti-feminist statement? Certainly she has gone on record as saying she disapproves of some feminists’ rejection of men: “It leads to sterility.” And she apparently prefers the company of men “because they teach me things I don't know.” If so, one of the things they have taught her is that fixations about food are hardly a female monopoly. In her more recent novel Latecomers, the two German male wartime refugees Hartmann and Fibich each try to deal with having abandoned their parents, Hartmann through becoming a gourmand, but Fibich never satisfied, always hungering but afflicted by chronic indigestion. Lewis Percy, in the novel of the same name, is “nearly always hungry,” feeling deprived of the richness of life (through the contrived ending in which he suddenly acquires a new life is the literary form of force-feeding).

Readers of Brookner's novels and her few interviews know that the protagonists have a past uncomfortably close to her own: a lonely, displaced childhood, and a kind of inverted caretaking relationship with her irresponsible mother and father. In her Paris Review interview, she has commented simply: “I was brought up to look after my parents.” In part, Brookner's protagonists are domestically responsible because no one has ever let them be anything else. Furthermore, no one appreciates a home more than a once-displaced person, a label that covers virtually all her protagonists, as well as herself. With such a background, one might expect charity for the protagonist in each stunted development. Yet Brookner also exposes their shortcomings, since people, she insists, don't win by being good but by being bold. In alimentary terms, those who really want to satisfy their hunger don't order from a menu but steal food from others’ tables.

The question remains as to why these characters are aware of their fixation but incapable of change. Perhaps those with a discriminating appetite find all their selections to be off the menu. To settle for something else is unsatisfying; to grab someone else's food is unseemly; to starve is no solution, either. And if eating is identity, one cannot simply change the eating habits of a lifetime. M. F. K. Fisher, perhaps the most astute writer ever on food, offers this explanation in The Gastronomical Me: “It seems to me that our three basic needs, for food and security and love, are so mixed and mingled and entwined that we cannot straightly think of one without the others.” Anyone who can make this kind of statement has clearly thought out her needs and how they are all related. But to separate them is hardly as easy as pie. Brookner's protagonists, if they are ever to break free, must learn to ignore traditional virtue. “They also serve who stand and wait” is still only too true.

Jonathan Yardley (review date 9 January 1994)

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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 part of an entirely prototypical Brookner paragraph:

“We seek to form attachments where no attachments properly exist. Toni accepted her disappointment, which mirrored exactly her disappointment in both her father and her husband. Unlike most people she had learned something from this. When Hugo, her last love, left, she, concentrated her considerable resources on living alone, although my mother and Nanny Sweetman remained a guarantee against total solitude. She dressed carefully every day, was in regular attendance at the hairdresser, and played cards with her friends in the evenings. Gradually she went out less and less, and preferred her own neighborhood, where the shopkeepers knew her, to any other. She knew now that she could expect little from Dolly; the removal to Brussels had told her that. She gradually came to see that Dolly had never liked her, but had used her, as she in fact had hoped to use Dolly. She was a lonely woman, but too dignified ever to admit to this loneliness.”

From the epigraph with which it begins, to the penetrating observation with which it closes, that passage contains worlds of understanding. It embraces everything from the nature and variety of human disappointment to the mutuality of exploitation to the shame of loneliness, all within nine graceful and candid yet subdued sentences. Were her prose more ornate we might call her Jamesian, and indeed the workings of her mind are distinguished by precisely the subtlety and delicacy of the master's. But then it will be recalled that James, too, is a taste that many readers have acquired only in limited part or not at all.

So if Brookner has not yet lured you into the rarefied world of her novels, be prepared for the possibility that once again she will fail to do so. But if she does not leave that world in Dolly, certainly she widens it, giving it new dimensions and new possibilities. If in some respects the novel is characteristic of her fiction, in others it is not; rather than shrink back into itself, as so many of Brookner's stories do, this one struggles—in, of course, Brookner's quiet way—to break out of the cocoon, to reject “the coward's way out” and get on with “the real business of life.”

Brookner's admirers will at once recognize the situation into which she places the reader. A young woman, Jane Manning, whose “intense inwardness gave [her] a disconsolate air,” finds herself involuntarily confronted with the noisy reality of her widowed aunt, Dolly, a “true primitive” who “seemed to generate her own microclimate.” Dolly has come to London from Brussels after the death of her husband and has thrown herself upon the mercies of Jane's family. “It seemed to her essential to cultivate popularity, and she believed, perhaps shrewdly, that she would be socially acceptable if she appeared to be unfortunate.”

The contrast between Dolly and her in laws could not be more vivid. She is brassy—“Singing and dancing: that's what it's all about”—while Jane's parents are “innocents abroad in a world which they persisted in believing to be both orderly and benign.” Connected by marriage rather than by blood, they have odd if unacknowledged affinities, as Brookner explains in another paradigmatic passage:

“Dolly was an annex of our own small family, a footnote, never part of the main text. We all felt this, Dolly included, but as Dolly considered herself to be more interesting than our largely uneventful and so united selves she was happy to accept us as peripheral to her world and to her interests. She descended on us more rarely than she had done when first making her way in what she clearly thought of as more superior company: when she did it was in a spirit of public service, as if to spread a little gossip and glamour into our colorless preoccupations it was important to her to be admired, and my mother genuinely admired her, not, as Dolly thought, for her social brilliance, but for her uncompromising sense of reality. Thus is it possible to admire someone of whom one disapproves, for having gone further than the distance one is prepared to travel oneself; in such situations it is even possible to admire immodesty, vanity, ruthlessness.”

Then the domestic tranquility of the Manning household is broken by the death of Jane's father. Her mother retreats into grief. Jane, given the choice between engagement and retreat, hesitantly yet firmly chooses to engage. She quits Cambridge and takes a job at a news clipping service; in time she becomes a writer of books for children. Slowly, uncertainly, she makes her way into the world, guided however unconsciously not merely by Dolly's bumptious example but by a longing that it would be beyond Dolly's nature to express. “I now understand that what I wanted to be was not independent, but its very opposite: dependent,” Jane writes. “I now understand—but of course did not at the time—that Dolly and I had something in common, an age-old ache that may have been no more and no less than a longing to be taken in, to be appropriated, to be endowed with someone's worldly goods whosoever they might be, for in that extremity of longing it might hardly matter.”

Critics who find Brookner's fiction essentially passive no doubt will claim that in saying this Jane is merely asserting her passivity, like so many Brookner protagonists before her, but this time they are wrong. Though at the novel's end Jane is still alone, we are to believe that it will not be thus forever—that she will find the strength to make a lasting human connection, to permit herself to be taken in by a loving heart.

It is this which gives Dolly its real depth and power, this passage that Jane makes, in her aunt's shadow, from the cloister to the world. It may not be your world or mine but it is a real one all the same, and for Jane to enter it takes real courage. But after all else is said and done, courage is what Dolly—the novel and the person alike—is all about.

Carol Kino (review date 20 February 1994)

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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.

On one level, Miss Brookner's novel tells the story of how this pair, after all the other relatives linking them have died, finally develop the bonds that make them a family. Yet Dolly is also about the act of writing, about how Jane turns from a cannily vigilant child into an omniscient adult narrator. Before long, she has stopped witnessing and begun imagining salient events in her family history; first the circumstances surrounding her parents’ placid, near-courtly liaison; then those of her mother's birth; and in time, those that created Dolly—from the childhood spent helping her mother sew streetwalkers’ clothes to the moment she steps onto the dance floor with Hugo. “I have mentioned the primal scene,” Jane says, “that imaginary sexual encounter which children reconstruct for their parents and which some believe that they have actually witnessed. This primal scene I unhesitatingly ascribe to Dolly and Hugo”. In a sense, Dolly (which was published in Britain as A Family Romance) is one long primal fantasia—if not exactly of the act that made Jane, then of the imaginings that fire her romantic consciousness.

Certainly its first two-thirds are about as wonderful as anything Miss Brookner has ever written. Jane's apparently aimless ramblings, grounded with exacting detail and raised on a structure of steel, seem a faultless demonstration of authorial assurance. And so, at first, do Jane's people, as they emerge from her languid, dispassionate regard like complexly faceted gems. But the problems—for both Jane and the novel—begin when her parents die and she inherits Dolly along with their estate, at which point she herself is forced into the action. Dolly suddenly makes it brutally clear that she is interested in Jane's family only for its money, and then rubs salt into this wound by cavorting somewhat crudely with a new boyfriend.

Yet the more Jane the character becomes confused and hurt, the more Jane the narrator seeks refuge in omniscience. As she does, she stops displaying the characters’ actions and starts meting out broad assumptions: “a woman of Dolly's type,” “the coarseness of her own behavior,” “the worst kind of man,” “the sexual equivalent of an osteopath or a chiropractor. “With her nostalgic tone and her talk of “the young” and “the hippie years” Jane has always seemed closer to 80 than 30—a conceit whose very artificiality, coming as it does within this patently literary endeavor, has so far been curiously pleasing. It's sad to hear her end as a crotchety old fogy. As she draws her story to its close by explaining the characters’ motivations with such certainty and completeness. Jane finally proves this novel's undoing.

John Bayley (review date 18 June 1994)

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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 trip to the Far East. Further than that their togetherness does not go, and had never been: for in her quietly authoritative way our author absolutely makes her point that just as there are many women, so there are many men like George and Michael, who are close to one another and have been for many years; who plan more or less to live together in their retirement; and who have not the faintest interest in each other sexually.

Sex is something they have had a share of, in their own ways. George for years had an affair with Louise, an affair that tottered on the verge of marriage but never quite made it: both in their own way were looking for something a little different. Again here the same quiet and absolute Brookner authenticity. Like all her minor characters Louise, with her ‘peaceful fastidiousness’ and her ‘calm, plaintive tone’ when she rings George up, is perfectly realised. She eventually marries a retired doctor, has a son, and continues to ring George up. He depends on this but

paid as much attention to it as he might to a bird outside his window. They knew each other so well that conversation was hardly necessary. Once each had ascertained that the other was still alive there seemed to be nothing more to say.

Michael Putnam too has had his affairs, more numerous and usually with married women. But now he had died and left his friend his money, and George is living in comparative affluence in a block of flats with a porter near Marylebone, where the tenants are mostly well-off widows or retired couples.

So what is George to do? No one is better than Anita Brookner at conveying the kind of inner vacuum in which a peaceable, orderly and prosperous life usually has to be lived: by the paradox implicit in achieved art she makes it seem on the page as satisfying as poetry. George despises religion, of which his family background has given him some experience. But he is a good man, kind within his limits; and he is hopeful that culture and art galleries might help his case. So they do, up to a point; and he has his hoard of sleeping pills for when they too may be needed.

Sex, which George has always liked without being enthusiastic about, could be a help, for sex is something in which the elderly become increasingly interested, at least in theory. In practice there is some hesitation:

For how much longer could he contemplate the possibility of making love to a woman, without immediately wondering whether he could face the embarrassment of undressing in front of her?

That might be a unisex response, but it sounds perhaps more like a woman than a man. Most men would be too absorbed or conceited to worry overmuch. But George is without doubt effortlessly male; and the more so because his creator has declined first-person narrative, unlike, for example, Iris Murdoch. Her male narrators have been greatly admired by one critic, who none the less was sure they never actually shaved.

So good a novelist is Anita Brookner that a reader would be quite content just to contemplate George and his situation indefinitely. But of course the show, or the plot, must go on; and so George's retired female neighbour in the block finds a young woman sitting on the stairs one morning, vaguely American in speech and dress, and saying that the Dunlops next door have lent her the flat but forgotten to give her the keys. George has the spare keys. He is dubious; but his kindliness and his emptiness leads him to let her in anyway. She is called Katy Gibb (perfect name) and she is into aromatherapy and Colour Counselling and all that; and George has someone to be nice to, and she brings out his masochism, and they don't go to bed but she wants to use his flat as her business headquarters: and at last he has to pay her fare back to the States to get rid of her.

Katy Gibb is also there—very much so—but the trouble, as her creator seems to know quite well, is that she is also fundamentally boring. Her emptiness is of a more aimless contemporary sort, and unlike George's has not the slightest interest about it, either for art or for the reader. Art makes interest, as Henry James also tells us; but even his art would have a hard time with Katy, as Anita Brookner's does too. Never mind. Katy does her job, and we are glad to see the back of her and return to the fascinated contemplation of George. It does not worry George too much that he has failed. Louise, now a long-term widow, makes one of her routine phone calls from Bournemouth soon after, and they think they might try a spring cruise together.

In her absolutely quiet, unpretentious way Anita Brookner dramatises with the finality of Racine the difficulty we have now in living when there is no particular reason to do so, and nothing to underwrite existence—in Sartre's or in Heidegger's sense—by forcing us into some sort of struggle to shape and preserve it. Two novels back, with Fraud, in its own special way one of her most resonant, she brilliantly put the question in terms of a thriller or roman policier. Her all but faceless heroine disappeared, and then reappeared, both acts being without the significance that the artifice of a mystery tale would have had to give them. In A Private View she closes with and claims George Bland, the man who has nothing to offer, to others or to himself. And with her, and for us, his success is complete. Every reader who feels sympathy with the genre of the novel, and with its potential subtleties, will realise—and I repeat this—how wholly and satisfyingly different each of hers turns out to be. George Eliot is a one-track performer beside her. But there is no point in such a comparison, for as a novelist Anita Brookner is both infinitely various and adorably unique.

Linda Simon (review date 8 January 1995)

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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 from a career as a personnel manager, during which time he was mildly distracted only by an affair with a docile woman who, in a rare act of self-assertion, finally married another man. As the novel opens, George's one friend, Michael Putnam, has just died of cancer. Bereft of that companionship, George sees his life as empty and boring.

Although George appears to be literate—in fact, Putnam warned him that he had picked up some dangerous ideas about life from the novels he read—he finds scant comfort in books; and although he frequents museums and galleries, he gets little sustenance from art. Like many of Ms. Brookner's protagonists, George is wealthy enough to be free to do whatever he fancies. But he is decidedly not fanciful.

With ample time to examine his past, George regrets his cautious, sensible choices. “He wanted life, more life,” Ms. Brookner tells us “He had never lost his heart, burned his boats, gone in search of something indefinable, out of reach.” He seems to be exhaling his life as a sigh until Ms. Brookner interrupts his orderly existence by confronting him with Katy Gibb, a thirtyish woman who takes up temporary residence in a neighbor's flat.

Katy pouts, sulks and espouses New Age ideas. She is not particularly attractive, but George becomes fascinated by her. Although he does not love or desire Katy, he sees her as a possible liberator from “the sadness that seemed to hover like a shadow over the end of every day.” He wonders if she can help him to start his life again. “But this time to be different, to be selfish, to be obdurate!”

Certainly Katy is concerned only with herself. Although she can speak with authority about such matters as tantric massage, crystal therapy, flower remedies and the child within, Katy has not found spiritual peace. Instead, she seems irritable and even angry; it is her anger, more than anything else, that attracts George.

In his fantasies, he does not see her as a companion or seductress; instead, she is a subject of his own rage: “He almost ground his teeth when he thought of the girl, her provocation, her beady-eyed passive aggression, the limitations of a mind which, in its very idleness, wrought in him that irritated frenzy which was part of his malaise.” Yet George seeks not power over Katy, but a kind of redemption. If approaching her seems to him like opening a Pandora's box, he recognizes that “Pandora let loose Discord, but at the bottom of the box discovered Hope.”

George, like all of Ms. Brookner's protagonists, hopes for the strength to reinvent himself, to do something shocking, to feel, at last, fully alive. Of course, succumbing to the fate of all of Ms. Brookner's protagonists, his hopes are dashed. Katy rejects George's attentions and decides to leave England. George returns to the placid routine of his former life.

All praise is due Ms. Brookner for the economy of her elegant prose and her sensitive rendering of moments of solitary introspection But after so many novels in which she allows her characters no glimmer of happiness and, especially in her later works, treats them with condescension, her readers are bound to feel disgruntled. Her plot, her characters and especially Ms. Brookner's bleak view of reality have become tiresome. She has not lately been able to re-create the tension of Look at Me, where it was possible, even if not probable, that Frances Hinton would escape from her claustrophobic existence. But George Bland is so unimaginative in conceiving new directions for his life that he can do nothing more than repeat past patterns of behavior. Where Ms. Brookner might have conceived an incisive portrait of an aging man, she gives as instead another version of her familiar story.

Frederick Busch (review date 22 January 1995)

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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 into literature and social pattern to retrieve the man she must make more than bland to us, the quiet English searcher who is unaware of what he seeks, but whose life is incomplete for him and not very meaningful for us until he finds a heightening of emotion and thought that yields, to him and to us, his truest self.

Think of Graham Greene's unhappy wanderers, or Henry James’ stifled travelers. One of them, John Marcher, who is the protagonist of the 1903 novella The Beast in the Jungle, is assisted by May Bartram to wait for the overwhelming emotion, the crucial and self-defining moment, of his life. We know that it has already appeared—as May herself; Marcher is a slow learner, and May has died by the time his culminating realization is offered by James as this:

“The Beast had lurked indeed, and the Beast, at its hour, had sprung; it had sprung in that twilight of the cold April when, pale, ill, wasted, but all beautiful, and perhaps even then recoverable, she had risen from her chair to stand before him and let him imaginably guess. It had sprung as he didn't guess….”

Marcher then scorns “the chill of his egotism and the light of her use,” and falls either swooning or dead on her tomb.

It is such a situation, “conventional enough,” that Brookner establishes early in her novel. Bland and Putnam were to take a long, slow journey through the Far East but were stopped by Putnam's sudden illness and death, and Bland realizes that “they had waited too long.” We begin to see Bland's life—a good if quotidian career as head of personnel in a large firm, a decent rise from a sad, impoverished childhood to financial comfort in pleasant London surroundings—as defined, like Marcher's, by waiting. The question of the novel is whether in all matters Bland will have waited “for too long.” The question for the writer (and her readers) is whether A Private View will be a rehearsal of novelistic convention about that wait, or something new and Brookner's own.

The clean, lucid prose is surely her own. The quiet, frustrated characters belong to her and to the convention she challenges: Bland, who is bland; Katy Gibb, a 35-ish American adventurer of sorts, who talks her way into using a temporarily vacant flat near Bland's and who looms as the jump-start his sluggish heart has long required; Louise, George's first real love whom he would not marry, who has been married and widowed and with whom he is in constant, comfortable, but curiously unprofitable-feeling touch.

Katy Gibbs, a softly attractive monster of amalgamation—she wishes to start a business based on “Shiatsu, Vibrasound, Tantric Massage, Reflexology, Chakra, Crystal Therapy, Essential Oils … Flower Remedies, Colour Counselling”—is an English cartoon about America's excesses. She is impossible for a reader to like, but perhaps this caricature serves to emphasize how desperate George is for an encounter. He sees her as a “gleaming mouth closing on a morsel of nourishment, her scarlet fingertips guiding it steadily towards extinction.” She is a textbook representation of appetite, of George's equation of sex with death, and of his hungers for and disgust with them.

Katy is either dressed in black as Sex-and-Death or perceived in tones of heat to remind us of George's slumbering passions. She is a soap-opera serpent and is rescued from ridiculousness by Brookner's allegiance to George's consciousness and by her strong use of small details through which she achieves a kind of verisimilitude. George, especially in his encounters with Katy, perceives and expresses himself and his surroundings in terms of words I can borrow from the James quotations above: twilight, cold, pale and chill. They well represent the world of her characters that Brookner typically suggests—as, here, we are shown a tree outside George's flat, which “somehow flourished on the edge of the pavement and was a glory of blossom in the spring. Now it could boast only a dozen or so tired leaves, all hanging down lifeless and waiting for the next wind to plaster them to the kerb which even now was darkening under a light sprinkling of rain.”

Sharing this sad world is Louise, whom Brookner relentlessly characterizes as comfortable but unexciting—the May Bartram of this long wait. Here, about 40 years after they loved and could have married, while they are still together as a kind of couple, visiting and calling often and regularly, Brookner has George summarize: “It was because Louise would have fitted in so well with the traditional idea of a wife that he had perversely put a curb on marrying her.” We understand that Louise was right for him and still is; we understand that he doesn't realize it; we watch him betray himself by pitching woo at the cold, manipulative American, and we wait to see if he will become John Marcher, face down on Louise's tomb.

Most encounters here are brief, most dialogue is minimal; emotional transactions take place more in Bland's mind than in the chilly London air. If Bland has feelings that he cannot cope with (and the novel is essentially about them), he then either falls into an uncomfortable sleep or becomes disgusted with food. A longing for sex, which here may be a surrogate for the spice of purpose in a bland existence, is usually followed by a perception of, say, the “cruel and all too brief winter sun.”

I am saying that the Jamesian mold constricts Brookner and that her own noteworthy convention suppresses both Bland's escape from his past and his author's escape from repeating her (and our) literary past. Bland is moved from prearranged place to prearranged place, from repetition of literary point to repetition of point. We watch him wait, and we watch him replace Katy with—it is hardly a surprise, given the number of reiterations about her—Louise. He settles for second best, and it is, maybe still unbeknown to him, first choice.

The reader finishes this novel with admiration for the skill with which the literary points are connected. But connecting dots, no matter the intelligence with which they are arranged, removes suspense and exploration from the writing and from the reading. In the end, “It was like a detective story, or a novel by Henry James,” George thinks, as Brookner perhaps reminds herself of her challenge to herself, even as she repeats both herself and the literary convention.

Brookner writes well here. I think she cannot write poorly. But what she does is cover the same gray, chilled terrain she has capably patrolled for so long and above which the reader and, I would suggest, the writer, had hoped she would soar.

Hermione Lee (review date 30 January 1995)

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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 Lives, A Closed Eye, and now A Private View. They frequently begin with solitary figures unhappily considering their lives. A Misalliance begins, “Blanche Vernon occupied her time most usefully in keeping feelings at bay.”

These patients in Brookner's fictional hospital are suffering from some form of repression, or what in Latecomers is called “the panic of the shutting of the door.” They feel displaced—as in Brief Lives, “forcibly put down in alien territory.” (Two of her best novels, Family and Friends and Latecomers, concern families, like Brookner's own, of European Jewish immigrants in England.) They are often grieving for lost parents. Their usual setting is a flat, with central heating, in a dark, gray London. There are walks through empty streets at dusk. There is often a public holiday impending, and dreaded. There may be an escapade to the Continent, but that won't necessarily relieve these life sentences of solitude.

An ethical debate continues from novel to novel—a set-to between the good taste of melancholy and the vulgarity of happiness, between a stoic fatalism and a modern idea of lives as infinitely transformable. Brookner's formidably dandyish satire has always exercised itself rewardingly on “options” and consolations. (“Blessings, it seemed, had once again to be counted” is the driest sentence in A Private View.) Transformations do occur, but more often the possibilities of change or escape are missed. The narration, with its lack of dialogue and its deliberate repetitions, reflects this airlessness uncannily.

With every new Brookner, I find myself looking for what I think of as her key word (a word not otherwise much in use in late-twentieth-century British fiction), which is “claustration.” Sure enough, it's here in A Private View, on page 192, sounding more than ever like an echo of “castration.” The central character, George Bland, “wondered if he could ever bear to endure his habitual claustration again.” His life has been a “refusal of adventure”; his surroundings are muted (“the lighting was adequate, although subdued”); he increasingly feels that “something was amiss.” In all these respects, his experience resembles the reader's.

Bland is a well-preserved sixty-five-year-old businessman (retired after forty years in the same job) who has inherited a small fortune from his only friend. He has a tepid long-term relationship with a placid widow, whom he has failed to marry. Behind this “desperately calm and comfortable life” lies a sad childhood. Bland was a poor boy from Reading with “disorderly” parents—feckless father, embittered, possessive mother. His escape into the middle classes (Brookner is an intensely class-conscious novelist) and his attempt to cancel out his past have resulted in a permanent sense of shame. Like James's Lambert Strether (“Live all you can; it's a mistake not to”), he is looking for a way out of what he's made for himself: he longs for more life.

The longing is immense, the scale is tiny. Apart from the dead friend, the patient widow, some neighbors, a porter, and a cleaning woman, there is one dea ex machina. This intruder, Katy Gibb, is one of Brookner's dangerous predators: nomadic, evasive, casual, dubious. George always thinks of her as “the girl,” but she seems to be older than she looks. Her shadowy business is human improvability (“Tell the world how great you are!”), and her language is transatlantic: sure signs of moral inadequacy. She offers her clients Tantric Massage, Crystal Therapy, Color Counselling. Bland imagines “a playground filled with adults in leisure wear, all self-actualizing obediently until the end of the session.” He shares his author's distaste for all forms of evangelism.

Nevertheless, George Bland becomes obsessed by Katy Gibb, and the novel takes on that anxious, imprisoned feeling essential to all stories of improbable erotic fixation. He is both ashamed of and aroused by the Dionysian last gasp of his hitherto repressed libido: he reflects with embarrassment on his “irrelevant penis.” (“An Irrelevant Penis”—the title of Anita Brookner's nineteenth novel, perhaps.) There's something seedy and sadomasochistic about his desire. Violence is latent, if not against “the girl,” then against himself. His orderly patterns begin to break apart.

On the novel's last page, Brookner offers Bland an escape from repression that allows for the possibility of self-help rather than self-destruction. But fairy-tale transformation is not what the novel as a whole seems to believe in. Brookner's poetry of forlornness is stronger and stranger here than ever. Brightness falls from the air everywhere in this novel, which takes place in a cold winter half-light and keeps crying out for “the sun, the sun!”

Ann Fisher-Wirth (essay date Spring 1995)

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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 happiness and fulfillment. For all her gifts, for all her brilliant academic and literary success, Brookner writes with the pain of exile. The daughter of Polish Jews, raised in London, she refers to herself in her Paris Review interview as having always been unhappy, having always stood outside, and as “one of the loneliest women in London.” And, as she often has her personae say of themselves in their tormented attempts to negotiate a path among the vibrant and self-assured, sometimes she gets it wrong; she lacks the information. Having a rich, eventful life need not demand—as Brookner seems obsessively to argue—that one be ruthless, designing, manipulative, self-centered, irresponsible, or showy.

Yet paradoxically, Brookner's limitations are one source of her great strength: hers is not merely a neurotic, but in its cumulative effect a genuinely tragic, vision. All of Brookner's heroines are defined by lack. They exist, by their own choice, almost entirely within the patriarchal structures—particularly the conventional heterosexual rituals of courtship and marriage—that offer them only meager satisfaction. Their dream of simple happiness is that expressed by Edith Hope: “to sit in a hot garden all day, reading, or writing, utterly safe in the knowledge that the person I love will come home to me in the evening. Every evening.” Relentlessly unliberated, they wear their hearts on their sleeves, longing for men who are never worth the intelligent, fierce passion they expend upon them. Unloved or at best tolerated, they devise rituals of camouflage and attempted compensation, trying to make up in painstaking dress, in the anxious preparation of meals for the beloved, in the careful application of the face, for lives they do not have. The cry of one of them, Frances Hinton in the early novel Look at Me, echoes for them all: “Look at me … Look at me.” But as Luce Irigaray points out, the “scopic economy,” the predominance of the visual over the tactile that characterizes Western culture, and that is at the base of Freud's castration theory and hence of Freudian and Lacanian psychoanalytic theory altogether, condemns women sexually not only to passivity but also to nonentity. In the scopic economy, woman “is to be the beautiful object of contemplation. While her body finds itself thus eroticized … her sexual organ represents the horror of nothing to see.

Though Brookner eloquently reveals that behind or within the “nothing to see” there is plenty to see, her novels about the hidden lives of women never really challenge this economy. Her women starve for a glance. The tragedy of her heroines, in fact, is partly the wholeheartedness with which they buy into the symbolic order that excludes them—excludes them not because they are unattractive, ungifted, or unlovable, but precisely because they want so much to be included. The allegiances are always to the phallocentric order, an order that always rejects and betrays them. Kitty Maule's story in Providence will serve as the type of them all: she chooses England, her father's land, over France, her mother's land; a lonely academic life over life with her mother's family; love for the narcissistic, unresponsive, and fervently Anglican professor Maurice Bishop over any other relationship. The novel ends with what she thinks will be her triumph: she gives a brilliant first faculty lecture, receives a university appointment, and is invited to a dinner party held in her honor by her lover Maurice Bishop. Sure that he will marry her, she travels to the party, thinking, “Soon I shall be where I have always wanted to be … in this house.” Once there, however, she discovers immediately that only she has not known that Maurice has another lover as well, the careless, sensual Jane Fairchild. “I lacked the information, thought Kitty, trying to control her trembling hands. Quite simply, I lacked the information.” Irigaray's comment on Freud helps us to a reading of the final moment of Providence, which is otherwise rather obscure. Irigaray writes: “The perfect achievement of the feminine destiny, according to Freud, lies in reproducing the male sex, at the expense of the woman's own. Indeed, in this view, woman never truly escapes from the Oedipus complex. She remains forever fixated on the desire for the father, remains subject to the father and to his love, for fear of losing his love, which is the only thing capable of giving her any value at all.” In a terrible moment of clarity, Kitty sees at last what house she has trapped herself in: the house of loss, of woman as emptiness loyal to and longing for the father. “My father was in the army,” says Kitty, fighting to hide her dismay as the guests all gather around her. But it is to no avail, because everything she has chosen has been useless. No matter how she courts it, the order of the Father will never be forthcoming: as she tells the guests, “He died before I was born.”

The characteristic maneuver of Brookner's heroines is to attempt to replace nothing with something, in imitation of the ones they feel to be lucky, hares instead of tortoises in the race of life (Hotel). This maneuver, however, is characteristically foiled; hopes are destroyed, illusions shattered, and instead of access to the “hot garden” time brings only desolation. Especially in the earlier novels, the most humiliating nightmares prove to be true. Ruth Weiss in The Debut must finally align herself not with her childhood nursemaid's promise, “Cinderella shall go to the ball,” but with the fear of Balzac's Eugénie Grandet, “Je suis trop laide, il ne fera pas attention à moi.” Frances Hinton in Look at Me musters the courage to attempt to seduce James Anstey, but he leaps out of bed, telling her, “Not with you, Frances. Not with you.” And in A Friend from England, Rachel Kennedy must face the scorn with which Heather, whom she has guided and patronized, views her. Meek, childish Heather turns out to have the courage to find love, whereas Rachel, who has prided herself on her wise sophistication, must conclude that she has utterly failed because she has been “guilty of an error.” She finally learns, “It was not Heather who was endangered, but myself…. The fact of the matter was that the wonders of this earth suddenly meant nothing to me. Without a face opposite mine the world was empty; without another voice it was silent.”

A Friend from England is one of Brookner's most painful novels, constituting perhaps her most extreme undoing of narrative authority and humiliation of the narrator. It is also one of her most courageous novels, as in it she most thoroughly allows her protagonist to reveal and condemn herself in her own words. “I lacked the information,” Kitty Maule thinks to herself at the end of Providence in her moment of mortification. But the narrative voice keeps its distance, by and large, confining itself to the invulnerable third person. Nor, given Maurice Bishop's deceitfulness, is Kitty too much to blame for misinterpreting his intentions. She may be desolate at the end of Providence, but she is not shamed; no one but she knows of her mistake, and she is able to hide her chagrin at discovering Maurice's betrayal.

Like Kitty, Frances Hinton of Look at Me suffers a moment of exquisite sexual humiliation, when she discovers—also at a dinner party—that her lover James is passionately involved with Maria, and that she herself has been set up by her voyeuristic friends Nick and Alix Fraser to be betrayed. But again, like Kitty, she manages to conceal her anguish; she is hurt, but no one sees it. She even manages a counterattack, remarking to Alix that Frances's friend Olivia is only deformed in body, implying of course that the beautiful Alix is deformed in mind. But this is small comfort, given the blame Frances knows she must level against herself for forfeiting James's love. She has desired to keep their relationship pure, in a dimly realized wish to re-enact childhood; now, she realizes, she has made him “accessible to others but not to me…. It seemed to me that I, rather than he, had brought this about, and my despair was extreme. For now that I knew that I loved him, it was his whole life that I loved. And I would never know that life.”

Self-knowledge, in Brookner's fiction, has a great deal to do with acknowledging the depths to which one will sink, the lengths to which one will go, the ways in which one will abase oneself, in order to maintain the illusion of propriety, importance, or safety. For many of Brookner's heroines, self-knowledge is a mortifying business; even after Frances Hinton learns that she has been betrayed, for instance, she waits for a telephone call from her treacherous friends, knowing that, if they call her, she will go. Self-knowledge comes at last to the bitter realization that the self is founded—or not founded—on emotional chaos and, behind that, emotional deprivation. Brookner's women have been silent, dutiful children who cannot claim helpful relationships with their mothers—women who are dead, or selfish and egotistical, or overtly seductive, or themselves silent and subdued. They cannot resolve their oedipal longings because for one reason or another they also cannot claim relationship with their fathers, who are dead, or cowed and pathetic though kind, or childishly engrossed in their childish wives. Consequently, the heroines’ own sexuality is thwarted or tormented: Ruth Weiss and Kitty Maule have had practically no sexual experience, whereas Frances Hinton—in a pattern that becomes increasingly prominent in Brookner's fiction—has experienced a love affair of indescribable pain. Among the earlier novels, only Edith Hope of Hotel du Lac has experienced anything resembling happy or even temporarily fulfilling sexual love—and her affair with David has its drastic limitations.

I return to A Friend from England, the plot of which turns on a cruel reversal whereby the narrator, Rachel Kennedy, whose self-deception we do not realize the first time through the novel, is by the end utterly undone. She has prided herself on her savoir-faire and sophistication, her suitability as a guide for the young, specifically for Heather Livingstone, daughter of the couple who befriend her. When Heather divorces her transvestite husband, moves to Italy, and announces that she will marry her Italian lover, Rachel goes after her to bring her home, as the agent of Heather's parents. She offers what she thinks is a cunning compromise: play it safe, keep “your own home. Your parents. The shop. Your own life, Heather”—have it all, and Marco too. “People manage,” she tells Heather. Why go to such extremes? It may seem all right now, but in ten years’ time? Supposing you change your mind?” To her astonishment Heather turns on her, accusing her of living a life of “Deceit. Control. Arrangements,” and tells her that she has succeeded all too well in serving as Heather's guide—teaching her what not to be. She who has felt herself so important must learn that she is merely “a friend from England,” and must realize with terrible clarity that “I had failed, but that was not what counted. What counted was that I was guilty of an error. It was not Heather who was endangered, but myself. I felt shame, penury, and the shock of truth.”

The second time through the novel, having granted the truth of Heather's attack on Rachel, we read against everything Rachel says. Her tone, which seems unremarkable, friendly though a bit ladylike, the first time through, now comes to seem—or at any rate we suspect it may be—defensively superior and condescending toward the Livingstones, the coeurs simples in whose lives, we begin to suspect, Rachel may passionately hunger to be included, as a compensation for the absence of her own. At times Rachel seems monstrous, pathological, trying to insinuate herself as necessary, as Heather's noble, reluctant caretaker, into the Livingstone family. What makes her think Heather needs her, or that Oscar and Dorrie Livingstone will turn Heather over to her after they die, besides her own desire that this be true? What makes her think Oscar and Dorrie look to her as a model for their daughter? Do they? We do not know; there is only Rachel to tell us, and she exercises what we come to suspect is an unconsciously self-serving narrative tyranny.

This tyranny masks a desolation so pervasive that it subtly deranges Rachel's perceptions. Clues to the desolation become compelling; for instance, Rachel misremembers Oscar's casual greeting to Heather, “Well, dear. There you are. Seen your mother?” as, “in a look of real anguish, which I had never actually seen on his face … ‘Where's your mother?’ … And again, ‘Where's your mother?’” It is hard not to read this as Rachel's lament for her own orphanhood, “Where's my mother?” And in a later scene, the noblesse oblige Rachel sees in the Livingstone's acceptance of her hospitality may in fact be her own noblesse oblige in extending that hospitality, as a cover for her longing to be wanted, to be beloved and necessary like Heather, the daughter to whom she thinks herself superior. She thinks of Heather as “a potential victim. Not the victim of a violent action, exactly, but of a trick.” In fact, however, Rachel is the victim of a trick—of her own trick, her own pretense at poise, at living an integrated and fulfilling life.

For we gradually learn that Rachel has a secret life of pickups and one-night stands, of sexual wildness that she distances from herself and likes to think she can handle. Unlike what she thinks of Heather, she goes in for “clandestine excitement” and “secret alliances,” “unsuitable friends” and “dangerous acquaintances.” This is why she scorns Heather, who seems so simple and pure, and why she feels “we had nothing in common except Heather's parents.” This is also why she describes what she sees in Heather as “not incapacity, but absence.” But in fact Heather demonstrates, finally, a healthy ability to love; she is not furtive and clandestine simply because her sexual nature manifests itself in her outward behavior. Rachel “had no romantic views about marriage, or marriages“; her life “was perfectly balanced and satisfying”; but her furtive excitements only hide her failure to chance genuine emotion, only testify to her own incapacity and absence.

Frances Hinton of Look at Me learns to take her moral from an eighteenth-century engraving of ice skaters: “’Glissez, mortels; n'appuyez pas.’ Alluding to the thinness of the ice, of course.” A Friend from England marks the failure of this strategy of gliding for life. Rachel, who has “long ago decided to live my life on the surface, avoiding entanglements, confrontations, situations that cannot quickly be resolved, friendships that lead to passion,” falls right through the surface into terror. And the terror is a measure of her loss. As a child, Rachel tells us, she loved to swim and swam in the sea with her father every day. Now she is afraid of “the sight of water and some vague but powerful fear of being sucked into it”; swimming makes her think, and thinking “is accompanied by a wave of sadness.” She tries to replace the parents she has lost through her friendship with the Livingstones, falling into a “dreamy, vulnerable, childish state” in her weekly visits to them, embracing “their sleepwalking demeanour, the food that always appeared as if by magic, and the abundance of material goods that flowed through their lives.” Specifically, they seem to offer her the illusion of a recaptured pre-oedipal wholeness; the “deep peace and safety of their home” seems to promise safety to what Rachel suddenly admits she is—a “hapless swimmer.” But even here, in gesture and dream, her loss comes back to find her; she imagines Oscar at one point, for instance, “for some reason,” as a suppliant with roses, standing outside Heather's door. Perhaps the reason is her own dead father, her wish that he should long for her as she still longs for him. Or perhaps she sees in Oscar's imagined gesture a signal for the daughter's original severance from the mother with her entry into the symbolic order, when the father arrives in fantasy like a suitor at the door. Bereft in the past, unable or unwilling to acknowledge that bereavement in the present, Rachel finds herself engulfed by loss. On her visit to Heather in Venice, she must finally admit that she too is a city built on water, and that, like Stevie Smith's swimmer, her narrative—which has seemed so poised—has told of “not waving but drowning.”

There is, however, a countermovement to failure, most fully realized among the earlier novels at the end of Hotel du Lac, and hauntingly intensified in the superb final pages of Brookner's later novel, A Closed Eye. First, in Hotel du Lac, though the phallocentric order is never challenged, though woman never affirms her sufficiency and plenitude, Brookner does arrive at a kind of triumph. Her protagonist Edith Hope cannot transform her nothing into something, but she can affirm what Wallace Stevens calls “Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.” Her choice to return to England at the novel's end, rather than to marry her cynical, cold suitor, Mr. Neville, is a choice to return to the pain of her lasting love for a married man who has probably abandoned her, ending their affair. But like Jane Eyre, another hunger artist, she refuses to define herself as not made for love. Alias Vanessa Wilde, secret write of romance, she finds her strength in her joined names, in the wild hopefulness of hopeless desire. As she tells her married lover David in a letter, “You thought, perhaps, like my publisher, and my agent, who are always trying to get me to bring my books up to date and make them sexier and more exciting, that I wrote my stories with that mixture of satire and cynical detachment that is thought to become the modern writer in this field. You are wrong. I believed every world I wrote. And I still do.”

I feel only relief when Edith finally refuses to negate her desire and enter a marriage of convenience with Mr. Neville, Brookner, however, has seemed to disagree. “She balks at the last minute,” Brookner remarks of Edith in her Paris Review interview. “As I wrote it I felt very sorry for her and at the same time very angry; she should have married … and at least gain some worldly success, some social respectability. I have a good mind to let her do it in some other novel and see how she will cope!” The appalling results of such coping are the subject of A Closed Eye. Harriet Lytton, the protagonist, makes a self-damning marriage such as Edith Hope refuses, not for her own comfort—for she is perfectly happy living with her parents and working in a bookstore—but for the sake of her mother, Merle, whose pleasure-loving habits are cramped by a child. Resolutely she embraces numbness, death-in-life, with her kind but boring, much older husband, to whom she is little more than “a restful presence and a compliant body,” but her calm domestic silences mask an inner tumult which cathects in longing for her best friend's husband, Jack. For decades she does not act upon these longings, and when she does, it is not only to act—that is, she presents herself to Jack, kisses him twice, but goes no further. What is fascinating about Harriet is the extent to which she chooses to live “a life not of her choosing.” She feels “dread” for her life, which is “an age without a name“; she lives with a “cowering feeling of dismay”; yet she refuses to speak, to change, so consciously, so intensely, that she reveals herself as starving for starvation. She can only live as hunger, in a state of what Rilke calls “unlived life, of which one can die.” Yet hers is no common reticence; she has no moral scruples that might keep her from adultery. Hunger feeds her, as life would not. The question, then, is why.

If I digress, I may suggest an answer. When Brookner published Latecomers in 1988, it seemed to indicate a radically new direction in her fiction. Widely hailed as a breakthrough, Latecomers departs from Brookner's earlier desolate, retiring heroines to focus on the friendship of Hartmann and Fibich, two aging European Jews who meet when they arrive as little boys in England, having been sent from Berlin by parents who then vanish in the Holocaust. Only Fibich's wife, Christine, an important but secondary character, continues in the line of Brookner's earlier protagonists. Mostly, the novel is an aching hymn of thanksgiving for the resiliency of the human spirit and for the friendship that has enabled Hartmann and Fibich to survive their childhood losses; the novel's refrain, “Look, we have come through,” comes from the title of a book of poems by D. H. Lawrence. When I read Latecomers several years ago, I thought that Brookner, too, had “come through,” that she had reached the true source of her sorrow and would begin more openly to explore her place in history as the child of Polish Jews brought up in exile in a tragic century. Certainly Latecomers has a range the other novels lack, in its moving exploration of the human results of political devastation. And yet, rereading it in the light of A Closed Eye, I see, not how different Latecomers is from the other novels, but how similar—and in fact, how quintessential—for Latecomers most dramatically expresses the originary moment, the constitutive loss, that informs all of Brookner's fiction and that, for instance, lies buried beneath the more obvious desolations of Hotel du Lac, A Friend from England, and A Closed Eye.

Near the end of the novel Fibich returns to Berlin, in a gallant and anguished attempt to recover the ground of his past. After almost a lifetime in exile he persuades himself that, if he is brave enough to return to the site of his destitution, his past “would be returned to him as an illumination, and that illumination would render him whole.” But he finds that there is nothing to find; the past has vanished, his loss will never abate. And yet, in a sense, he comes through; “although he was face to face with the terror and the alienation and the longing, he was nevertheless somehow still on his feet. He had not died of it.” Briefly he reaches a sense of affirmation: “Ah, he thought, the truth bursting on him suddenly, nobody grows up. Everyone carries around all the selves that they have ever been, intact, waiting to be reactivated in moments of pain, of fear, of danger. Everything is retrievable, every shock, every hurt. But perhaps it becomes a duty to abandon the stock of time that one carries within oneself, to discard it in favour of the present, so that one's embrace may be turned outwards to the world in which one has made one's home.” And he even thinks of his son with joy: “His boy, his dearest boy.” Yet all of this is destroyed when, arriving back in England, he steps off the plane to see a woman faint. Plunged right back into the arms of his irredeemable grief, he re-enters the deathless moment when, as a boy being taken to England, he stares from the train window and watches his mother collapse from the loss of her child.

This agonizing tableau expresses the deepest impulse in all Brookner's fiction: the loss, or betrayal, or absence of the mother, which issues in an unappeasable hunger in the child. Situations change from book to book: Fibich's mother, for instance, abandons him through love, whereas Harriet's mother and Edith's mother abandon their daughters through selfishness. Blanche in The Misalliance loses her mother in childhood. Sometimes the loss is greatly delayed: Lewis in Lewis Percy, Mimi in Family and Friends, Fay in Brief Lives, and Anna in Fraud are adults when their mothers die. But whatever the specific narrative situation, it refers back fundamentally to loss itself, originating in what Julia Kristeva and others describe as the double severance between mother and child, the first taking place at birth, and the second with the child's entry into the symbolic order. Brookner writes of a lack every human shares, and a mourning without ceasing.

In her book on melancholia, Black Sun, Kristeva eloquently describes such mourning not just as an aberrant state but as “an exceptionality that reveals the true nature of Being.” Brookner would seem to agree. Some, in her fiction, ignore their lack: Hartmann, for instance, in Latecomers, turns from grief to pleasures, consciously closing the past behind him. But for all Brookner's avowed envy for the happy, the spoiled, the lucky, her fierce loyalty is to those who, like Kafka's hunger artist, “couldn't find the food [they] liked”—those who, in Kristeva's words, remain “absent from other people's meaning, alien, accidental with respect to naive happiness,” and who “owe a supreme, metaphysical lucidity to [their] depression.”

This, finally, is why Harriet won't have Jack in A Closed Eye: if she does, she will fall for the illusion that, at least for a moment, something in the symbolic order can sustain her. Instead, she keeps her loss where, with a frightening logic, it belongs: denied access to the mother, she projects the full weight of her love on to Imogen, her daughter. The names of the characters tell the desperate wish: though Merle, the “blackbird” mother, betrays her daughter as Madame Merle betrays Isabel Archer in The Portrait of a Lady for the duplicitous safety of the phallocentric order, still, retrieval may be found through Imogen, the daughter, who, like Imogen in Cymbeline, appears to be fallen, appears to be dead, but will be magically resurrected. For, as Kristeva writes, giving birth, a woman “enters into contact with her mother; she becomes, she is her own mother; they are the same continuity differentiating itself.” Secretive, sexual, selfish, during her life Imogen defeats her mother's fantasies of a close, redemptive mother/daughter union. Imogen's death, however, releases Harriet at last to claim the power of motherhood as Kristeva describes it: “Closer to her instinctual memory, more open to psychosis, [she] consequently [becomes] more negatory of the social, symbolic bond.” She passes through “an abyss of sorrow, a noncommunicable grief” that causes her to “lose all interest in words, actions, and even life itself” and finally surrenders all, even reality, to enter into visionary madness. These are the novel's last words:

Turning, she surveyed the empty room. My life, she thought, an empty room. But she felt no pain, felt in fact the cautious onset of some kind of release. Vividly, she caught sight of Immy's face. She drew in a deep breath, laughed. There it was again, Immy's face as it had always been. She laughed again, at the image of Immy's laughing face. Sinking on to the sofa she let the tears rain down. Never to lack for company again. All will be as before, she thought, as she wept in gratitude. When my little girl was young.

The epigraph to this novel only deepens the mystery. It is taken from Henry James and applies, of course, to Harriet: “She strikes me as a person who is begging off from full knowledge,—who has struck a truce with painful truth and is trying awhile the experiment of living with closed eyes.” Clearly throughout her life, Harriet has chosen to live with closed eyes. But when she recaptures Imogen, do her eyes close further?—does she create a mad fantasy, utterly disregarding both death and the sordid facts of Imogen's life? Or, as she moves beyond the phallocentric order into a wild zone we might call madness, or vision, or the consolations of the imagination, do her eyes open at last? When the doors of perception open, what do we see?

Coda. Brookner publishes novels faster than one can write essays about them. Whatever one writes of her oeuvre must therefore be open to question, for the figure in the carpet is incomplete. For instance, Fraud—the novel published after A Closed Eye—seems to arrive at a breakthrough when its heroine, Anna Durrant, disappears, shedding the yoke of dutiful daughter enforced by others’ expectations. “Don't be too obedient,” she tells her acquaintance Philippa when she encounters her in Paris at the novel's end:

Don't be like me. I believed my mother, who told me I'd be happy in due course, that the best things in life are worth waiting for. And I waited. That was the fraud, the confidence trick; that was the original fraud. All the others followed from there. I blame no-one, only myself. I shouldn't have been so credulous, nourishing my hopes in secret. I went along with it, I suppose. I thought it was the well-behaved thing to do. And one deception prepared me for all the others.

Perhaps Fraud offers a hope for genuine liberation. Philippa takes courage from Anna to drop her married lover unless he can commit himself wholeheartedly to her, and Anna discovers a way of supporting herself: “I'm going into business. I'm going to design clothes. Women of my age will always want decent clothes. Not everyone wants to be in the fashion, particularly if it looks absurd.”

Breaking free from both sexual hunger and what this novel presents as the destructive claustrophobia of the mother/daughter bond, both women discover their paths, “out in the bright, dark, dangerous and infinitely welcoming street.” The world lies wide before them—yet to my mind, the ending of Fraud seems futile unless one catches the echo not only of Adam and Eve, whose brave steps lead them forward into the world of loss and woe, but also of Isabel Archer, another motherless daughter whose “world lay before her—she could do whatever she chose” (The Portrait of a Lady) but whose own unacknowledged compulsions take her right back into the trap of Gilbert Osmond. Within Brookner's oeuvre itself, there is not progression in any one direction, but a powerful, restless circling around a set of obsessive concerns. So for instance, Edith Hope's rejection of a marriage of convenience leads to Harriet Lytton's acceptance of such a marriage; so too Harriet's abdication from the symbolic order into fantasies of mother/daughter fusion leads to Anna Durrant's impatience and claustrophobia, her final decision to reject the hothouse mother/daughter bond and make her risky way, clad in “decent clothes,” in a world of lost connections.

Since Fraud, Brookner has published Dolly and has announced that one more novel, her last, will appear. Whatever this final novel may bring, in Dolly she rings the changes on the subject of the daughters’ desolation, whether that desolation be caused by the absence of maternal love—as it is with Henrietta—or by the inadequacy of maternal love against death, hardship, and loss—as with Jane and Dolly. Once again, any particular loss seems secondary to loss itself. Jane, the narrator, wishes at one point that she could ask her selfish and dissatisfied aunt Dolly, “What do you lack?” The question reverberates far beyond the instance, for as Jane comments, “That was the most fundamental question of all.”

In the novel's final pages, Brookner addresses American feminists, through Jane, speaking to the kind of protest regarding her representation of women's lives with which I began these pages. Her characterization of Dolly—who, in the earlier novels, would have been a victorious “here”—reveals even this worldly woman's essential, unappeasable melancholia. No longer does the fiction pit losers against winners; hunger defines them all. Tenderness enters the narrative, and forgiveness. No matter how Dolly has used her, Jane comes to value her aunt precisely because of the intensity with which Dolly demands, “Love me! Save me!,” and to see in the “archaism and futility” of Dolly's desire an appalling but genuinely tragic innocence which assumes that anything could ever fill “an empty room, an empty evening, an empty life.”

Frances Hinton remarks, “I am famous for my control, which has seen me through many crises. By a supreme irony, my control is so great that these crises remain unknown to the rest of the world, and so I am thought to be unfeeling” (Look). Edith Hope says, “The facts of life are too terrible to go into my kind of fiction” (Hotel). But they do go into Brookner's. We as readers see beneath the nothing-to-be-seen that defines Brookner's women, so proper, so careful, in the view of other characters in her novels. We see beneath their posturing, too, the awkward retreats and exhibitions which they largely botch. We see to the empty, hungry center, the dwelling place of lack. Brookner's novels would seem to bear out Lacan's famous observation, “There is no woman who is not excluded by the nature of things, which is the nature of words.”

Brilliantly she writes of that exclusion. Lecturing on Benjamin Constant's Romantic novel Adolphe, Kitty Maule tells her students, “The potency of this particular story comes from the juxtaposition of extremely dry language and extremely heated, almost uncontrollable sentiments… . There is a feeling that it is almost kept under lock and key, that even if the despair is total, the control remains. This is very elegant, very important” (Providence). What Brookner says of Adolphe describes her own work, too. Elegantly accoutered and impeccably made up, her novels, like her women, find their truth in limitation, their passion in despair.

Teresa Waugh (review date 17 June 1995)

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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 constitutes reality. So help me Pirandello! Yet this is presumably a lot of what the book is about and perhaps one of the reasons why it is so haunting. It addresses truth as seen through the eyes of the individual and fantasy by which the individual alters the truth so as to sustain him or herself. But reality—like space—is something which, if contemplated too deeply, generally gives rise to dreadful brain ache.

Setting brain ache aside for the moment, then, let us consider the plot. A woman of indeterminate age, Brookner's narrator, is clearing out her deceased mother's things when she comes across an old notebook in which is written, quite simply, ‘Dames Blanches. La Gaillarderie. Place des Ternes. Sang [your reviewer's heart sank at that one]. Edward’ and the opening sentence of Proust's A la recherche. Back we go to the themes of truth, reality and memory. Anyway, from these few words, our narrator constructs the life story of Maud, her silent, sighing mother. This she does partly because she feels herself to have grown so very like her.

The next problem for your average reader is that although the incidents in the rue Laugier occurred in 1971 when Maud was 19 and the narrator's father had just left Cambridge, Maud, we are told, died in her fifties, ‘years ago'. At first it seemed that this 1971—twice repeated—was a printer's/editor's error, but on reflection, we must presume it to be a further trick, causing us yet again to question the truth, and to lead us perhaps to ask if the truth really even matters?

The truth—or rather Maffy's fantasy about her mother—centres around a passionate if short-lived romance which took place in Paris when Maud, the only daughter of an impoverished and straight-laced widow from Dijon, was 19. This passion is the only thing that happens in Maud's life—or rather it is the only thing which counts, which makes her feel that she has lived or in the existential sense establishes her existence.

One cannot help but feel Brookner's sympathy for this restrained, strong, beautiful, controlled woman who some people might think needs to be shaken out of her conceit and be told, as we all should have been in our time, to look outwards. This wretched woman who once fell for every teenager's idol—a cad, a spoilt god of a man—can never move forward. She remains enclosed in her private world, treasuring what she sees as her essence, reading novels with women's names for titles, and is apparently unable to feel—or at least give out—any warmth at all, despite this one-time great passion. Incidentally, she must read rather slowly as it takes her nearly ten years to work her way through to Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina. One wants to tell her to get up and live, kick off her shoes, muss her hair.

How can this static woman in her arid marriage, smugly reading good books and cooking exquisite food be any concern of ours? I don't know, but she is. Anita Brookner has sublimely mastered the art of making her reader interested in her characters however dull they may be, and however uneventful their lives. She beautifully evokes the turgid atmosphere of French provincial life at the time of Maud's girlhood and the fleeting, dream-like quality of youthful summers and what is more, she makes you have to read her book to the end.

By the end, though, we are just as puzzled as we were at the beginning, for Maffy reminds us once more that none of it was true anyway, except for the fact that she did have the reticent, sighing mother whom she regards as in some way ideal. So Maud wins in the end. Whether this is a myth, a parable or an allegory, I shall never know. But does it matter when what we are left with is a thoroughly enjoyable and most unusual novel?

Hilary Mantel (review date 14 January 1996)

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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 edgy narrative. She must make her mother comprehensible, at least to herself, because she knows she is growing to resemble her. She realizes that the story she presents is a fabrication, “one of those by which each of us lives,” but, she adds, “perhaps the truth we tell ourselves is worth any number of facts, verifiable or not.”

In Maffy's invented narrative, we go back to Dijon, to her mother's childhood. Maud's tubercular father dies early. Her mother, carefully managing on a limited budget, settles into an unlike reserve and sternness, which she passes on to her beautiful daughter. Each summer they go for a holiday in the country to stay with Maud's aunt. Here, at the age of 18, Maud meets two young Englishmen, friends of the son of the house. One of them is David Tyler, who is rich, careless, self-possessed and seductive. The other is Edward Harrison, a kindly young man who dreams of grand adventures, both physical and mental, but is too timid to venture much in real life. Tyler is rather like an Iris Murdoch character, larger than life and fuzzy around the edges; we know he is charming only because the author tells us so.

Tyler seduces Maud, who becomes pregnant. She is not the sort of person for a casual affair, and Edward is left to sweep up the emotional wreckage. He offers to marry her, and they go through with the ceremony, even when a miscarriage makes it, at one level, unnecessary Theirs is the tragedy of passivity. Edward wants Maud to love him with a real, indelicate passion, but can offer nothing to make her do so. Maud will always mourn Tyler—or, rather, the vision of him she carries in her head. Maud and Edward's marriage is an accommodation made between two diffident individuals who sense very early that they are not equipped to get what they want out of life. The modern world sets no value on inexperience in a woman or innocence in a man

In Incidents in the Rue Laugier, Ms Brookner offers us a fastidious and thorough exploration of Maud's inner world in prose that is exquisitely considered. No nuance of feeling escapes her. The scene in which Maud tells her mother of her impending marriage is a classic of high comedy and pathos. Why did her mother let her run off to Paris with Tyler, Maud asks, if she was so certain of the outcome? “We were at dinner, if you remember,” her mother retorts, “Nobody argues at the dinner table.”

Two lives wrecked, all for the sake of table manners? Of course, it is more complicated than that, and the mother's own cynical despair is peeled away, layer by layer.

For its first two-thirds, this sharp, sad book seems one of Ms. Brookner's best. But when the unsatisfactory marriage is described, there is inevitably a loss of power. Maud moves to London, goes for long walks, develops a big Proust habit and wallows in dreamless sleep. Nine years on, there is a child—the narrator, Maffy. What follows would be described by other authors as postnatal depression, something to be got over in a few weeks, perhaps months. But this mother suffers from a dignified melancholy that lasts for 17 years. In a similar fashion, with nothing to goad it forward, the narrative sinks into a chaise lounge and expires. The final note is dangerously trite: “The dead, perhaps even more than the living, have a right to their mysteries. And who knows? We, the survivors, may be called upon to explain them, if only to ourselves.”

Anne Roiphe (review date 16-30 December 1996)

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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.

Sherwood appears to have a kind widowed mother to whom he is as responsible as a young man can be. After a brief happy but inconsequential fling in Paris he meets Sarah Miller, the grown daughter of his mother's stepdaughter, and becomes involved in a passionate affair. It is singular only in that Sarah has no interest in him as a person. She teases, allows no conversational relationship at all, remains completely indifferent to him, her attention wandering as soon as the sexual act is over. Involved always with others, Sarah comes and goes as she pleases, treating Alan as one might an old hairbrush, used when handy, forgotten mostly in the back drawer. Her very indifference to him ignites his obsession, his one-sided, unruly, painful erotic love. We are used to this kind of thing in women and very rarely think of men being similarly infected, but of course they are. Recall Proust's Swann and Odette for one.

Sarah Miller is almost too bad to be true. She is totally self-absorbed, ignorant, pure id, and has a mesmerizing effect on men, who swarm around her the way a bomb squad might circle a suspicious paper bag at the entrance to a theater. Moreover, she is the love object not only of poor Alan but also of his step-uncle's rescued-from-poverty, younger Polish wife. Sarah is as unkind to Jenny as she is to Alan, all human beings registering in her mind as no more than fall leaves rotting along the path.

When Sarah quits London for Paris and Alan in his despair gets sick, he is tended to and pursued by the duller Angela, who will become his wife. That misfortune occurs because Alan is so easily picked up and pressed into husband service. It occurs because the very worst of our self-destructive forces combine to create relationships in which people have ample opportunity to torture each other, to give and get remorse, to live out a macabre dance that goes on and on long after the musicians have packed up and gone home. The turf is familiar, but it is brilliantly described here.

The core of Altered States is the story of Alan's brief marriage to Angela and the great wake of loneliness it leaves behind. Angela is as antisexual as Sarah is pure sex. She is as manipulative and needy as Sarah is indifferent and wild. Angela is convention without fire and her misery becomes Alan's. The plot revolves on what he does to attempt to escape and how Angela exerts her own power. This is Jane Austen for a more sophisticated, exhausted, soul-weary time. It is about who one loves and marries. It is even about money and class and the role they play in our fates. The ending is not happy here, however, and the misunderstandings of character are not ironed out: rather, they are compounded as the novel progresses.

Brookner's small book contains the sorrow of the gesture not made, as in Ishiguro's Remains of the Day, as well as the kind of doors slamming, hope dying, immobility that Edith Wharton gave us in Ethan Frome. The tragedy lies in the fact that Angela has no sexuality while Sarah has only sexuality, and Alan cannot put together the part of himself that is society's creature, his mother's good boy, and the part that is animal running free in the veldt.

The circumstance has been noticed before in D. H. Lawrence, in E. M. Forster, in Doris Lessing and A. S. Byatt. But in Brookner the hopelessness is especially guilt-tinged, and the ordinariness of life draws blood that weakens both character and reader. Alan suffers a lifelong loneliness that he is incapable of altering even in middle age when he meets a potential and willing companion. This loneliness that afflicts many of Brookner's characters is so profound that it blights the reader, causing an instant need for companionship, for daylight, for an open window, for a telephone conversation with a soul-mate or a cuddle with an obliging child.

Altered States is particularly acute about the ways people use each other in what passes for love. Jenny turns her affections to Angela in search of a daughter she cannot have. She does not have Angela's best interests at heart. Her purpose is to create a place for herself, a stage for her emotions to act upon. She becomes the caretaker who, like an evil blanket, cripples as she warms. Angela takes care of Alan's every necessity to convince him that he must marry her for his comfort. She does for him as a way of doing for herself. Once her end is met she can turn on him with the distaste she has always felt.

There is no one in this Brookner landscape who behaves toward anyone else with full recognition of the other person's independence, moral autonomy, need. What decent behavior there is derives from guilt or obligation or social rules. The guilt that torments does not improve human relationships, it leads to further distortions and missed chances. Alan never repairs his life and never becomes the father he might have been. Love is then fixated on Sarah, whom he is still chasing years later and who, when he thinks he has caught a glimpse of her, still has her back toward him. This is certainly a bleak view of human relations, and one that I would not want to argue with or wish to live with day in and day out.

The writing in Altered States at first seemed submerged to me, oblique and tendentious. As the story unfolded, though, the language seemed to perfectly fit the tale. Its rhythms work well to echo the themes, to reinforce them, to lull you into false security. All the while tension grows, you become caught in the plot, and like the characters are unable to jump out of the way. This is Anita Brookner's genius and her great gift.

In America most novelists are more open with their feelings. Their characters drink too much, drug too much, complain or examine their souls, attend loud parties or have sex that is explicitly described. They go to therapists, they drive cars too fast, they love hard and sometimes some make it, or at least realize what has become of them. In Brookner's very English novel that appears so demure in tone, the action is small, you have to pay attention to catch it, but the emotion, compressed as it is, becomes huge, indeed overwhelming.

Reading Altered States made me wish I lived in other centuries where orphans found patrons and guilt could be atoned for, where fortunes appeared magically and the frontier was still open. Ah, those were the days when a novel could transport you out of yourself. Brookner brings you in very close, too close for comfort. That is essentially a compliment, backhanded as it may be.

Deborah Mason (review date 26 January 1997)

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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 badly with Alan from the opening bell: she greets him indifferently, then quickly drifts away. “That was to be the pattern of our relationship,” he notes. “As soon as I saw her I knew that I should be eternally seeking to attract her attention.”

Alan starts leaving her daily phone messages and taking “furtive” evening walks near her apartment, her lack of response only deepening his resolve to exact some acknowledgment of his existence. When he finally does, it takes just one night of perfectly meshed, wordless sex—and a freedom to please himself that the dutiful Alan has never known—to seal his lifelong allegiance.

What the night seems to seal for Sarah is her sullen imperviousness. Almost immediately, she quits their one-sided affair, and Alan is left reeling. “I never knew what she thought of me,” he confesses, “because I never asked her. Even in hindsight I do not entirely regret this. I never made a fool of myself.” He compares their liaison to “a satellite that fails to return to earth,” remarking that “our adventure was unfinished but beyond human retrieval systems.” He writes her a letter that is never answered. Her loss now a reality, he collapses into illness.

Sarah's acolyte, Angela Milsom, a congenitally self-sacrificing young woman with “an element of pleading in her rather too bright expression,” quickly becomes Alan's caretaker. Regressing to a childlike need for order and safety, and too polite to protest, Alan soon finds himself married to her. Their descent into a suffocating “domestic quietude” succeeds, for a time, in keeping his preoccupation with Sarah at bay.

But gossip from relatives keeps him informed of her. The family's unrepentant black sheep, she is even slippery in real estate dealings with her own mother. Indeed, the one imperfection in the novel is that Sarah is almost too bad to be true, portrayed without Ms. Brookner's usual touches of satire. It is as if the author didn't know quite what to make of young women like Sarah: Ms. Brookner clearly cannot abide her, but is fascinated by her unapologetic assertion of self, something Ms. Brookner's brave middle-aged heroines in Fraud and Hotel du Lac struggle a whole book to achieve.

When Sarah briefly reappears in Alan's life, she ignites a longing that soon escalates into the fantasy of a secret Paris rendezvous. Tracking Alan's marred, dreamlike thinking, Ms. Brookner presents a brilliant X-ray of obsession, the blinding centrality that the rendezvous assumes in his mind, blotting out reality: the conviction that his whole life depends on this one desperate meeting. The exercise ends in-tragedy, shattering his marriage and, ultimately, any hope of a real life.

Alan now finds himself longing to be old, to put himself beyond Sarah's reach. In the richest and most affecting portions of the novel, Ms. Brookner describes his retreat into a solitary half-life of routines carefully orchestrated to shut out any vagrant emotion or disorder. Alan feels most comfortable in a monastic room at a quiet hotel on the French-Swiss border, a place swamped in “intermittent mist.” Here he is granted the purest safety of all, invisibility. “There is no one who expects me, no one to whom I might telephone,” he says, “but I have always been reasonably content with my own company. My mother always commended me for this, taking it to be a sign of character.”

Anita Brookner has won acclaim—including a Booker Prize for Hotel du Lac and comparisons to Jane Austen and Henry James—for her elegiac portraits of women contending with the tyranny of convention. Now, with Alan Sherwood, she has created the most engrossing male character of her recent work, a person whose muffled existence summons up the magisterial sterility of T. S. Eliot's “hollow men.” Alan is an ordinary man who has bleached his life of feeling, and has come to mistake self-annihilation for sanctuary.

Heller McAlpin (review date 9 February 1997)

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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 as he reflects back over it, casts a fussy aura over his tale of obsession coupled with curious passivity. Altered States is enlivened by Brookner's trenchant wit—“if peasants exist they are mostly indoors watching television.” She has Alan observe—but not enough to entirely relieve its somewhat claustrophobic focus.

The plot is in many ways a saga of frustration, for Alan's attraction to evasive, elusive Sarah Miller is an exercise in futility. Both Alan and the reader know this from the start, just as he knows that Sarah is “vain, unreliable, and feckless” and “neither clever nor generous.” She is also monumentally rude.

But that doesn't stop him from pursuing the young redhead. He notes that “at the beginning of an affair one does not count the cost. Already I knew that there would be an affair, and that it would not lead to possession. This did not deter me: I had confidence in the strength of my own desires.”

Sarah is so unrelievedly awful, however, that the reader can understand Alan's frustration but not his attraction. This is a bit of a problem. After their first time in bed together, Alan describes their exciting “wordlessness,” but whatever excitement he manages to convey to the reader is negated by her nasty response when he asks her to dinner that night. “Don't be a bore, Alan” she snarls. “Don't cling.

Somewhat to the reader's exasperation. Alan persists, even when she fails to answer his calls or to be at home for his visits. Alan finds that Sarah is “a woman whose very presence was unsatisfactory, but whose absence was worse.”

Although Brookner's story concerns an ingrown albeit convoluted family, there's very little family feeling here other than between Alan and his mother. One of the few other warning relationships in the book is between Alan and his oldest friend and law partner, Brian, a hearty fellow refreshing in his lack of self-consciousness.

Sarah, however, is heartless not just to Alan but also to her mother, Sybil, and to her Uncle Humphrey and his new wife, Jenny, despite their strong attachment to her. Yet, with a precision characteristic of Brookner, Alan observes, “I had to admire the sheer consistency of her extremely inconsistent nature. She was unpredictable, yet she could also be relied upon to be unpredictable.”

Eventually, even Alan has enough of this. But in his “bafflement, estrangement, distress,” he falls ill, which leaves him wide open to Sarah's rather pathetic friend Angela. Angela stalks him at the coffee bar where he breakfasts every morning and homes in on him like a hummingbird to sugar water.

Angela is after the social position that comes with marriage—a subject dear to Brookner's heart. But she changes immediately upon marriage, regressing to “voluntary invalidism” even before she miscarries their daughter.

This profoundly immature and entirely unsympathetic woman—as horrific in her way as Sarah is in hers—has “no known disease but an apparently inexhaustible desire for guardianship.” Jenny comes to tend Angela, but she is as needy as Angela, and Alan finds this a further disruption of his peace and “a monstrous pantomime of final and maternal affection.”

What we get, then, is the intense despair of entrapment, which Alan tries to bear nobly. Neither his home nor his life is his own anymore. We are actually relieved when Angela takes her life but, alas, Alan isn't. His shock soon turns to guilt, which takes up permanent residence.

Like many of Brookner's characters, Alan is a victim of his own compunctions as much as of circumstances or society. He renounces all possibility of a happy life in favor of a solitary one dedicated to work.

He grimly, dutifully looks after the widowed Jenny, who like Angela is always “obstinately waiting to be waited upon” after her small stroke. He visits weekly in her claustrophobic apartment, the halls of which make him feel “as if trapped in an anteroom to old age,” and spins Sheherazade-like tales about someday finding Sarah again.

His self-inflicted penance is stultifying, reminiscent of the bleak entrapment at the end of both Edith Wharton's Ethan Frome and Wallace Stegner's Remembering Laughter. Yearly visits to his mother at his country house and a “dreadfully quiet room” in a “monumentally dull” hotel in a town on the Swiss-Franco border offer little relief. (This place makes Brookner's Hotel du Lac, where she exiled another solitary character to regroup after a scandal, seem scintillating by comparison.)

Are we to feel sorry for Brookner's character? Aghast at what a life can come to? Admiring of rarely displayed moral fiber and discipline? Although keenly observed, Brookner's Altered States is, in the end, a depressing portrait of a descent into “contented mediocrity.” Her writing is as supple as ever, it's her subject that is tiresome.

Max Egremont (review date 7 June 1997)

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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 perhaps because of his family's central European background, Henry had seemed to dominate her meekness: another reason, surely, why Mrs May should feel the sense of loss which somehow eludes her.

Mrs May copes with the little epics of old age: an exhausting journey to Oxford Street, a disturbing dream, lunch alone in an Italian café where a few anodyne words with its former proprietor echo like thunder in her head. The struggles lack even the edge of a threat of deprivation, for Henry was rich and has left her with more than enough money. All this is described in Anita Brookner's gently aphoristic prose. It is told with compassion and wit: a civilised description of a civilised predicament.

Then a telephone call offers the possibility of change, or at least a temporary upheaval. The grand-daughter of a cousin of Henry is coming back from the United States to get married in London; the cousin asks if Mrs May will put up Steve, a friend of the bridegroom, and she is introduced to the world of three young people who are an affront to her ‘entirely suburban’ values through their wilful gracelessness, their hideous clothes and their astonishing capacity for what seems to be genuine, if crazy, belief.

The shocks proliferate, easily identifiable now, so different to the vague disturbances that usually disconcert Mrs May. Steve sleeps in her spare room, the one in which her husband Henry had died; the bridegroom, David, has the smile of a psychopath, odd ideas about diet, and insists on saying grace before every meal. Henry's cousins seem at one moment to be on the verge of collapse, as family skeletons leap from closets. Even the usual panaceas of tea and routine seem useless; but it becomes possible also to forget the fortified tedium of the slow, uneventful journey towards death, a particular surprise because, as Mrs May acknowledges, she had become ‘rigorously and genuinely dull'.

As a result of these shocks, the past becomes more confusing. Memories of Henry's glamour mingle with those of his sneers about Mrs May's background; she remembers also how she had been transformed from his mistress into his comforter, which had seemed to be a denial of an earlier ardour she had known in circumstances both terrifying and tragic. Then a small triumph gives her hope and a realisation of the need Henry's apparently powerful cousins have for her ‘meek but decided presence'.

Mrs May is very well done, especially in the contrast between her inner melancholy, her doubt, and the outward impression of resolve. This, one feels, is courage: if only convention had not stifled whatever spirit of adventure there may once have been. Visitors is a heartening book, leaving a sense of the possibility of late discovery. At its end Mrs May dreams of a new life, and the power of this thought itself is evidence of a transformation even as it fades.

Jacqueline Carey (review date 18 January 1998)

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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, finely shaded prose.

Dorothea May, a 70-year-old widow, is pressed into housing one member of a wedding party for a week or so; she has a handful of conversations, some over the phone with relatives; an unexpected guest shows up at the reception. And that's about it, at least for the plot.

Visitors is a stripped-down book, certainly, but it doesn't feel as empty as Dorothea's life clearly is. Brookner has never spent much time creating scenes. A single sentence will get you into a dinner party, and then she'll devote pages and pages to taking everybody's emotional temperature. Dorothea has memories, of course, but they aren't very substantial; one of Brookner's born spinsters, she claims to have been unaffected by 15 years of marriage.

Dorothea's dead husband's cousin Kitty provides the novel's other axis. Kitty is rich, pretty, silly, pampered, teary, manipulative, generous and feminine, while Dorothea is quiet, stoical, plain and polite. No, not like a Jane Austen heroine. Not even like Anne Elliot in Persuasion, to whom Dorothea compares herself as a girl, admiring her patience. Austen ruthlessly tots up balance sheets throughout her novels, eventually bestowing financial security in the form of marriage. But there are no happy endings in Brookner's world. Nor is there any virtue, in the usual sense. Despite her admiration of Dorothea's rigid behavior, Brookner seems to think of it as a personality trait rather than a moral choice. Dorothea is allowed a brief vision of how her life might be different, but escape is impossible.

This is to some extent natural, because of her age and because she has some obscure self-diagnosed physical impairment. Getting dressed, applying makeup, buying a bedspread can present immense difficulties. But look at what we are then lulled into accepting: “It was only when she raised a liver-spotted hand to quell her fluttering heart that she noticed that she had grown old, and was then obliged to summon up what inner strengths she possessed. Yet, knowing how much these strengths would have to exert themselves, she still sometimes wished that she could do without them, could throw herself on the bounty of others, could simply charge a doctor with the task of making her better, could sit back irresponsibly and wait for the miraculous cure, the miraculous gratification.” To sit back is irresponsible? You mean she won't go to a doctor?

Viewed dispassionately, Dorothea is probably clinically depressed. Although her in-laws use her first name, she seems to be “Mrs. May” to herself. She has no appetite; she is comfortable only with strangers; she suffers from such severe dissociation that she is surprised to hear herself speak out loud at a dinner party. A lesser writer would point this out all the time. Such stylish alienation can be quite comforting: it scratches an itch while remaining obviously a device. But Dorothea's situation is impossible to dismiss in this way. Brookner's prose, as mandarin as it is, never comes between her character and the reader. Despite scattered references to Dorothea's reading and the usual whiff of Henry James, the language feels remarkably un-self-conscious and unliterary. There is no prettiness to distract and protect us; there is no distancing irony. Brookner unsettles us with sly clarity.

Visitors may be the book Brookner has spent her life aiming toward. She has never believed in anything except the dignity of the struggle to get from one day to the next, and in the past this has sometimes been obscured by plot considerations. Here we are allowed only peepholes into the lives of the voluptuous old cousins and the chillingly bland younger generation, but these are as pure and sharp as only glimpses can be. Nothing distracts us from the lesson that even failure can entail an incredible triumph of will.

Aránzazu Usandizaga (essay date Summer 1998)

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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 “life” and “art,” which he described as the “Sacred Fount and the Ivory Tower.” The artist's struggle between those worlds has concerned writers of the genre from its beginning with Goethe and Rousseau until the great examples of Henry James, Marcel Proust, and James Joyce. Other scholars have noted that philosophical individualism and positivism and Matthew Arnold's ideas about the social functions of art have influenced the genre. Arnold regarded the expression of new ideas as “the business of the philosopher” rather than the poet. Those views contributed to the process that began in the last decades of the past century, by which “language died as the natural medium of truth.” Alienated from their traditional responsibilities, artists turned into demons or dandies in Baudelaire's mythology and into moral decadents in the English version of the crisis.

The “dissolution” of form that characterizes modernism can be traced to the earlier generation of decadents—Walter Pater, George Moore, and above all, Oscar Wilde. It emerges in the decadent's passion for a self-made life in conflict with society. William Butler Yeats described the generation as tragic. Art became the central subject of their writing, taking precedence over life. The artist was the only possible hero for a work of art; those writers no longer believed in the values of the past; literature could no longer imagine characters of heroic stature (Praz). For many decadents—Oscar Wilde is a most obvious example—life became a “mode of fiction.” Virginia Woolf says of modernism: “They [the artists] cannot tell stories because they do not believe the stories are true.” In “The Leaning Tower” she comments: “the modernist male writers respond to the perceived loss of a common ground by turning inward to their own experiences.” Women writers, marginal in the modernist tradition and not invited to share in the theoretical discussion of the Bildungsromane, provided their own theoretical interpretations of that genre and its tradition. Most important, they practiced the art of self-expression. A careful look at the tradition of women's writing shows that they had written the genre for a long time and for their own artistic purposes—and continued to do so after modernism.

Bildungsromane serve specific cultural and political functions for modernist women writers. Women use the genre for self-creation and self-understanding; not as an escape from the real world (as do male writers of modernism) but as a way to approach experience with the hope of changing it. I do not think the tension between fount and tower applies to women's writing, or at least not in the same way. We must find a new model to accommodate metaphorically women's efforts at self-expression.

A number of recent studies have dealt with women's Bildungsromane. I want to develop my argument about women's Bildungsromane using the model established by Susan Gubar in 1983. In her study of Katherine Mansfield's stories, Gubar argues that with the advent of modernism, women writers at the turn of the century overcame the anxieties of their Victorian predecessors. They begin to write explicit celebrations of female culture for the first time in Western history. Gubar recognizes three main shifts in perspective that enabled feminist-modernists to reshape the genre: the revision of domestic mythology, the creation of fantasies of a woman's language, and the establishment of the mother-daughter relationship as a release from the solipsism of individual consciousness. She defines that sudden emergence of a specifically feminine art as the appearance of a female “utopian imperative.” Ten years later, Pamela L. Caughie confirms Gubar's suggestions when discussing Virginia Woolf's work: “For the modernist the lack of belief in their stories leads to despair of something lost. For Woolf, this lack of belief leads to affirmation of something gained…. Woolf responds by adapting her aesthetic model, making it more flexible and responsive to change.”

Other feminist critical readings of the period seem to question Gubar's positive revision of female modernism. Penny Brown argues that women's texts contain modernist female writers’ conviction of the presence of a “poison at the source” of woman's experience. Gubar's suggestive “utopian imperative” seems to clash with Brown's careful interpretation of many modernist texts in which the frustrated heroine ends up retreating from reality into the natural world or into the world of childhood. The heroine is forced to find an escape from her feelings of guilt and madness as well as from a powerful consciousness of entrapment and suffocation. Although Penny Brown's reading of these modernist works is convincing, the simultaneous emergence of a “utopian imperative” among modernist women writers cannot be denied. The fictional female characters in many American and European stories of the period confirm a literary destiny that is simultaneously and paradoxically “poisoned” and hopeful.

Gubar applies her arguments beyond the modernist period in which the female “utopian imperative” emerges. A few decades after the initial moment in which women writers reshape the genre to accommodate women's Weltanschauung, Gubar sees the old disillusion and disbelief in the value of women's culture returning. During the First World War women's talents and capacities were recognized, but during and after the Second World War it became increasingly obvious that power remained in men's hands and that a “feminine mystique had substituted female self-definition” (Gubar). Stead's The Man Who Loved Children, Plath's The Bell Jar, or Lessing's The Golden Notebook demonstrate the female writer's loss of hope in her achievement of self-expression and her despair about change in women's lives.

Gubar saw a strong rebirth of the “utopian imperative,” a return of the celebratory mood in writers such as Alice Walker, Margaret Drabble, and Margaret Atwood, who published in the late 1970s and early 1980s. In that second wave, the recognition and exploration of the female “utopian imperative” obsessively becomes the central subject in much of women's writing in English. Since the beginning of the twentieth century, the exploration and celebration of women's literary achievements, women's self-expression, seem gradually and significantly to dominate fiction, as a substitute for the romance or the love plot of the past. By rejecting the obsolete love plot, women writers increasingly have tended to see their literary rebirth in terms of verbal survival and artistic self-realization. The awareness of women's newly achieved capacity for self-expression and self-projection in fictional texts expresses metaphorically the hope of establishing their cultural presence in the discourse of Western civilization. Women's recovery of speech is constantly celebrated in female writing of the 1970s and 1980s. The contemporary insistence on the creative potential of language has also encouraged that development. Many texts could support this argument: those of Rebecca West and Kathleen Raine in England; of Maxine Hong Kingston, Lee Smith, Jamaica Kincaid, or Mary Gordon in the United States; and of Margaret Atwood, Alice Munro, and Joy Kogawa in Canada. Those texts represent and express different cultures, but they all insist on the personal salvation of their characters through literary achievement.

It is useful to re-examine the questions Gubar raised in light of the female Bildungsromane written and published in the last few years. Gayle Green supports Gubar's description of the emergence and decay of the woman artist's voice since the beginning of the century, but she observes a loss of the “utopian imperative” and the presence of a new hopelessness in the literary representation of female identity. In the last chapter in her book, aptly titled “Whatever Happened to Feminist Fiction?” Greene insists that “[n]ovels of the [late] eighties—even by Lessing, Atwood, and Drabble—no longer envision new possibilities…. Postfeminist backlash is … real.”

Although Greene's denunciation of a postfeminist backlash may apply to the social and political dimensions of feminism, to the real facts of women's emancipation, and also to some literary texts, I believe it is highly debatable whether it can be applied to most writing by women today. I think Gubar's model and Greene's conclusions should be read in the context of some publications by women writers of the 1990s. There may be exceptions, but I think that the emergence of women's voices in this century, particularly since the unexpected eloquence acquired in the 1970s and early 1980s, has empowered women and has produced a change of plot from which there is no return. The “utopian imperative” may have lost some of its initial energy in the recent past, but the feminist backlash can be of only limited literary consequence. Successful publication, popular support, and academic postmodernist canonization of literatures from the margins have supported the change in woman's rhetoric. The experience of self-expression and self-understanding is, I believe, here to stay. The writer's position may have changed from initial anger, defiance, and bliss to a more balanced awareness of the need for negotiation and survival, but women's texts have lost their innocence forever. In some texts of the 1990s, the initial fruitful obsession with woman's “utopian imperative” is giving way to the search for subject matter beyond the recognition of woman's verbal power, and some writers are looking into female action in a wider context than the self. One can easily confirm that many women writers today are trying to imagine their female characters as creative subjects of their stories, and as active artificers in defining women's space in the imagination of our own fin de siècle.

Anita Brookner's two Bildungsromane of the 1990s, A Closed Eye (1991) and Fraud (1992), exemplify the irreversible change in women's writing. Compared with her previous fiction, Brookner, in those two novels, offers an important change in cultural perception. Read in the light of the theoretical models I have discussed, Brookner's change in those texts could confirm the development of the rich tradition of the twentieth-century Bildungsroman. We can understand the change in her cultural perception only as a consequence of the groundbreaking achievements of feminist writing that have transformed women's literary destinies forever.

In not subscribing to any available form of the feminist “utopian imperative,” Brookner's art shows a permanent tension between two incompatible and contradictory notions that could be defined as the classical versus the romantic, the modern versus the postmodern, the historical versus the utopian. It raises the central questions of women's writing today: Is the function of art the evocation of what is permanent, or is art entitled to suggest change? Authors of various attitudes and beliefs have defended both positions at different times. Contemporary feminist criticism, profoundly influenced by postmodernism, values the complexity of literature “not because it expresses ‘the human condition’ but because it exposes the world as constructed and therefore as capable of change” (Greene). Writers such as Margaret Drabble confirm that belief by adding that “[m]any people read novels in order to find patterns or images for a possible future” (Greene). The paradoxical struggle between a belief in permanence and a simultaneous need for change lies at the core of the tensions present in Brookner's pre-1990s fiction. Her novels concentrate on making such a balance convincing given the characters’ internal and external conditions. Her scrupulous artistic honesty prevents her from providing easier, more hopeful, and utopian destinies for her characters who are forced to limit themselves to the resources with which they are originally endowed. Yet I believe that in A Closed Eye and Fraud she achieves a new creative balance in the tensions she has been working with since she wrote her first novel.

Memory and utopia, permanence and change are two ways of defining the relationship of the writer and the reader to time. In the past, lack of creative time and space has been the subject of Brookner's claustrophobic fiction. By forcing her heroines to become permanent outsiders, she turned feminine isolation and loneliness into a myth of universal significance. Finding a metaphor for the author's attitudes in biblical models, one critic sees her heroines and their fixed roles as contemporary incarnations of the universal exile: “Deceived, disappointed, deeply introspective, and deprived, [her characters] wander through the maze of contemporary experience, shouldering the burdens of being stranded in a hostile, often meaningless world … they embark on an endless and cyclical journey, impelled by nostos without realized destinations: for them, there is no promised land, to ‘home’” (Hosmer). Tired of the repetitively sorrowful world that characterizes Brookner's novels, other critics, particularly feminist ones, have expressed their sense of frustration.

A Closed Eye and Fraud break the pattern of Brookner's previous writing. Unexpectedly, the reader encounters two characters in those books for whom the writer suggests a way out of their limiting conditions, a way out of their passivity and their loneliness. Two different concepts of time are now sequentially combined in these texts. The atemporal world those characters initially inhabit, the world in which most of Brookner's heroines live, is eventually turned into a context in which time acquires specific values and lends itself to achievement, to improvement, and to actual change. Brookner's reinterpretation of time becomes one key element in the transformations she introduces into these two novels. Like her previous writings and like much of women's literature in this century, these texts consist of a long series of circular reflections on the past, connected to the present by the character's circular and always repetitive reflections.

Feminist theory has defined women's literary quest as tending to be circular, just as biological and social cycles define women's life and culture. In the texts under discussion, that circularity is empowered and given new significance. Feminist critics such as Julia Kristeva and Hélène Cixous have discovered the potential in that enriching cyclic perception; they see it as the woman writer's way of disrupting patriarchal linearity, Western teleology, and of introducing an alternate “sexual vocabulary.” But if “[gynocriticism] involves and invokes structural or imagistic circularity” and represents the “limitless energy of the female libido,” feminism also recognizes the ambivalent nature of the cycle's symbolic value. On the one hand it represents perfection, or as Cixous states in defining l'écriture feminine: “the cycle is broken only to create another cycle, in an endless process that knows no closure” (Greene). The conception can also be understood as negative, as a “vicious cycle.” Brookner's two novels of the 1990s offer a subtle example of the transformation of feminine “vicious cycles” into feminist open structures; from claustrophobic, matrophobic texts to liberatory revisions; from structural worlds fixed to the past to circular processes capable of accommodating and stimulating the future.

Perceptions of space are also interpreted differently in these two novels. If the heroines in both texts are finally rescued back into a world of sequential change, they are also removed from a sterile, airless space into one that will allow for survival. Both heroines, Harriet and Anna, find their redemption in foreign countries, far away from the dreary landscapes of London's respectable middle-class boroughs and from the stuffy homes most Brookner characters inevitably inherit. Earlier Brookner heroines, from Edith in Hotel du Lac to Rachel in A Friend from England, travel abroad, yet they always return to their old worlds. Margaret Diane Stetz suggests that in some of her novels Brookner uses the paradigm established by Woolf in The Voyage Out. “Brookner draws on Woolf's structure of a voyage to foreign parts that will parallel a more dangerous act of mental traveling into the individual psyche.” But unlike Woolf, Brookner saves her characters in the end: “Brookner refuses to take the Woolfian course of decreeing a resolution. Her Rachel (in A Friend from England) … does not die. She comes back to England, presumably to face over and over again both the peril and the lure of letting oneself ‘sink.’ To the reader who knows Woolf's oeuvre, Rachel's willingness—like Edith Hope's in Hotel du Lac—to make that daily effort must seem doubly brave” (Stetz). Even though Stetz insists on the importance of survival for Brookner's characters, they are still a long way from making their nostos in any creative way, as critic Robert E. Hosmer, Jr. points out.

Unlike most Brookner heroines, either trapped in their space or engaged in apparently unprogressive and endless interior voyages that end in reluctant returns after a time abroad, Harriet and Anna, in A Closed Eye and Fraud, do not return to their homes. The change these two novels introduce affect precisely the voyage's final destination, both external and internal. Their decisions not to return home seem to be a necessary step in the acquisition of self-understanding. In both cases, the feminine spaceless cycle of sterile repetition is opened up into new scenarios of wisdom, of personal growth, and of creativity.

Both tales are excellent examples of the female Bildungsroman at the fin de siècle, truly thorough investigations of women's culture. Brookner's training as a professional art historian of international reputation has very probably influenced the rigorous method of her writing and contributed to turning her into the kind of artist-observer she is, a writer who returns over and over again to her familiar landscapes and looks at them from many possible perspectives. Having rewritten the same subject for many years, her analysis has reached extraordinary precision in her later novels. Furthermore, her patient observation has produced new insights into women's lives and important discoveries about human experience. Her alertness to the complexity, the ambiguity, and duplicity of all experience allows her to reveal and convey the opaqueness and the ambivalence of facts and feelings with a remarkable artistic honesty and truth. Although her characters tend to be heroes and villains simultaneously, the important moral differences in their attitudes and in their actions are never blurred. Because those are recurrent features in Brookner's writing, the apparent differences between these last Bildungsromane and Brookner's previous ones seem slight at first glance. A closer look discloses subtly disguised, radical new approaches in both style and artistic purpose.

The narrative strategies Brookner introduces in her 1990s novels advance the important improvements occurring in those works. The beginnings of both A Closed Eye and Fraud relate directly to their endings. In A Closed Eye, Brookner first presents Harriet writing a letter to her dead friend's daughter Lizzie, inviting Lizzie to spend a holiday with her in Switzerland where she has decided to remain after the death of her daughter and her husband. The letter brings Lizzie to Switzerland, changes Harriet's perceptions, and gives her the chance to find sense in her life, to mature and survive. Fraud begins with a police search for the disappeared heroine, and the mystery is not solved until the end of the novel. Both novels have tightly knit structures that help focus the writer's purposes and emphasize the characters’ awakenings to new understandings of their functions and identity. The outcome of Brookner's intense exploration of female experience seems apparently unspectacular. Like most of her stories, these narratives are told in the third person, in an extremely flexible third person that permits the narrative to shift swiftly from the perspective of one character to those of others without ruptures and without the narrative self-consciously exhibiting its own abilities. The heroines’ point of view controls the narrative in both texts, particularly in A Closed Eye; their visions become serious explorations into their relationships with their parents, friends, and possible loves, and in the case of Harriet in A Closed Eye, also with her husband and her daughter Imogen.

Harriet Lytton, the heroine of A Closed Eye, inhabits Brookner's familiar external and internal scenarios. Like so many other Brookner characters, she is imagined as a good daughter and an obedient girl, and later as a good wife to Freddie Lytton, the rich, much older husband, to whom her parents marry her. Though obedient and submissive to both parents and husband, Harriet openly questions the values of her goodness. She sees herself critically reflected in Dickens's heroine Little Dorrit, “But Little Dorrit was beginning to horrify her…. An impossible woman, she thought, with a slight but definite sorrow. But good as I always wanted to be good.” The limitations of Harriet's submissiveness are explored and contrasted to the attitudes of other women, in particular to those of her less than submissive daughter, Imogen. The roots of Harriet's conformity are in her quiet childhood and the selfishness of her parents who grow tired of running a small shop and encourage their obedient daughter to marry a rich friend of the father, who cannot offer her real satisfaction. Conscious of her parents’ selfishness, Harriet sees them simultaneously in positive and negative terms: they loved and protected her but also thoughtlessly married her off to the wrong man. She continues to see them, and to love them, but neither Harriet nor her parents can feel comfortable again in each other's company: “Now we meet on uncertain terms, with little enough to say to each other.”

Harriet's narrative is centered mostly in her rather unhappy marriage, “a form of honorable retirement, with pleasant amenities to which she had previously had no access.” Brookner applies great understanding and precision to the analysis of Harriet's husband. Although Harriet explicitly recognizes the limitations of her marriage, she also acknowledges her own weakness and her need for the protection, stability, and affection she finds in her husband. Brookner allows Harriet to investigate the consolations to be found in a bad marriage, as well as the losses implied in what could have been a better one, such as that of her lifelong friend Tessa to the attractive Jack, who is defined as “the villainous hero of romantic fiction, the cruel lover who breaks hearts and thrills women.” Harriet's growing physical dislike of, even repugnance for, her old husband contrasts brutally to the erotic dreams Tessa's husband arouses in her. But what prevails is the consciousness of Jack's inconsistency as a husband, his neglect of Tessa, and the vulgarity of the woman he finally chooses as a lover.

The discussion of Harriet's experience of married life reflects Brookner's by now well-known attitudes toward love and sexuality. The character's longing, her sexual dreams, and her never satiated desire become a universal metaphor for the suffering and loss associated with women's destiny. The elusiveness, the sheer lack of permanence of her potential lover, his ambivalence toward his own wife, and his choice of a lover become yet another version of Brookner's persistently recurring theme that deceptions inevitably lie behind the promise of apparent sexual satisfaction and imaginable happiness. All the possible lovers, all the attractive young husbands and wives in her novels end up deceiving and frustrating the heroines’ hopes. The two younger and attractive men in A Closed Eye and Fraud are no exception, and the only vaguely consoling male character in A Closed Eye is Harriet's unattractive, if not openly disgusting, husband. Because his age prevents him from being desirable, he can offer the heroine some help and generous protection, the only satisfaction a woman can expect from a man in a Brookner story. Tessa's marriage to a sexually attractive man is destined from the beginning to the sordid kind of failure the author always associates with youth, beauty, and sexual passion. Again and again treachery, deceit, and loneliness are encountered where one would expect a natural attraction to emerge, and tragedy is often associated with the pursuit of sexual satisfaction. It occurs in A Closed Eye with Tessa's illness and death and with Imogen's guilty bleeding and death as a result of her suggested sexual promiscuity. Brookner cannot come to terms with any version of the traditional literary romance, nor can she suggest a different one. When her heroines manage to break the vicious cycles to which they have always been destined, no element of sexual reconciliation is suggested for them in these novels, no promise of redemptive love. These heroines will be authorized to survive and to find new destinies; but like the women writers of the late 1970s and 1980s who project the liberation of the literary heroine by celebrating women's access to speech, Brookner's heroines will be saved without the help of a man. Sexuality, one of the “elements central to the concept of selfhood” ([John F.] Desmond) remains largely unexplored in Brookner's texts.

Although Harriet's sexual alienation and her incapacity to approach Jack may sound familiar to the Brookner reader, a radically new element seems present in her wish to overcome her desire. That decision has to do with her loyalty to Tessa, with the importance attached to female friendship in this text. Friendship among women is one of the most interesting novelties this book offers. One of the few blessings in Harriet's melancholy existence is the company of her friends, the loyalty they feel for each other throughout their lives: “True friendship between women is rare, I know, but we were never disloyal.” When Tessa prematurely dies of cancer, Harriet confirms the strong ties that bind these women: “She had felt so close to them, the girls, as Freddie used to call them. They had spent the afternoon together, unwilling to part, in silence mostly.” The company of women, always present in the story, turns into a central metaphor at the end of the book when Tessa's daughter Lizzie helps Harriet survive her loss and desolation.

This novel further expands the understanding of the female experience, by exploring motherhood. The realm of affectionate experience Brookner usually allows her characters has been limited in Harriet's case to a mother, a few friends, and a potential lover. Exploring motherhood from the mother's perspective is an interesting contribution to the tradition of the female Bildungsroman. With few exceptions such as Tillie Olsen's stories “I Stand Here Ironing” and “To Tell a Riddle,” early women modernist writers as well as recent artists have generally projected themselves as daughters. Mother to her child Imogen and surrogate mother to her friend Tessa's daughter Lizzie, Harriet enjoys the delights of motherhood but also the increasing deceptions of her own child's growth into adolescence, when Imogen inevitably disappoints her parents. Imogen is the least attractive and perhaps the least convincing character in the novel, and she clearly is derived from the stereotypical female villains that Brookner introduces in practically all of her parables. Her selfishness and lack of feelings remain obscure and difficult to understand. Lizzie is far more interesting. An unhappy childhood, an early passion for reading, an open dislike of Imogen, as well as a recognized incapacity to tell lies are the signs that will enable her to become the new Brookner heroine. Most significant is her early wish to be a writer when she reaches the age of forty, one with strong similarities to Brookner: “‘I'm going to be a writer,’ said Lizzie… . ‘You'll have to travel a lot, and get experience, and so on,’ said Harriet. ‘Not really,’ said Lizzie…. ‘I shall get it all out of my head. ’”

The mother-daughter relationship, explored now from the perspective of the mother, investigates the suffering and deceptions of maternal love, and the final disillusionment is the daughter's tragic death. Every aspect of life must be deceptive to the heroine in Brookner's world; the rigid destinies Brookner makes available must victimize her characters and condemn them to loneliness and lovelessness. The writer's balanced analysis of all aspects of experience leaves little room in the characters’ life for rebellion or violent ruptures. In this text, the complexity of experience justifies Harriet's submission and explains her suffering. Until the very end there is no call for action in the text—just Harriet's permanent awareness of limitation and loss.

After submitting her heroine to much of the suffering and disappointment to be met in life, to a scarcely satisfactory marriage, to the loss of her only daughter to a life of vice and eventual death, and finally to the loneliness of widowhood, Brookner devises an unexpected ending, one that connects this story to her next one, Fraud. The ending lightens Harriet's tragic destiny and suggests the inauguration of a new belief in woman's destiny, a new feminine utopia. Brookner unexpectedly allows her fifty-three year-old heroine a form of survival. Away from her country and her dreary house and liberated by death from the sources of her intense suffering. Harriet renews a forgotten relationship with Lizzie, her dead friend's daughter and her daughter's only friend after her estrangement from her parents. Totally unlike the heroine's dead daughter, Lizzie promises new wisdom and affection. Lizzie has not seen Harriet for many years because Imogen had used her as a cover for her dissolute behavior; but after Imogen's death, Lizzie accepts Harriet's invitation to visit her in Switzerland, and she plays a key role in Harriet's final redemption from an inner voyage of suffering. When Harriet finally asks about Imogen's life and true death. Lizzie compassionately lies about Imogen's happiness before she died. She lies because selfless Harriet's main suffering stems from the fear that her estranged daughter was unhappy at the time of her death. After lying to Harriet, Lizzie despises herself, not for having lied, but for having hesitated to do so. By providing Harriet with a much needed peace, Lizzie becomes the knowledgeable daughter who helps her surrogate mother to survive, who supplies the consolation Harriet badly needs and deserves. In doing so, Lizzie bridges the wide gap between two generations of women; her wisdom and understanding promise her a very different future from Harriet's.

Reading Stendhal's passages on death to Harriet, Lizzie confirms the ultimate responsibility the author invests in her. Stendhal's words, mysterious in spite of their mutual efforts at translation, connect the women by their effort to understand the meaning of death. “Therefore death is nothing. It is a door which is either open or closed, it must be one or the other. There is no third way.” Only after Lizzie has interpreted Stendhal's words can Harriet come to terms with her suffering:

My life, she thought, an empty room. But she felt no pain, felt in fact the cautious onset of some kind of release, Vividly, she caught sight of Immy's face. She drew in a deep breath, laughed. There it was again, Immy's face as it had always been. She laughed again at the image of Immy's laughing face. Sinking on to the sofa she let the tears rain down. Never to lack of company again. All will be as before, she thought, and she wept in gratitude. When my little girl was young.

Like Demeter in Greek mythology, Harriet recovers the memory of her beloved child from death, recovers the innocence and spontaneity of motherly love. Harriet also recovers a new daughter in Lizzie, who though about to leave, promises to return: “'Goodbye. You'll come back? they inquired ardently. ‘Of course,’ she said, for a third time. This time it was not a lie.” That final truth, confirmed by the ever careful narrative voice, becomes for Harriet a promise of love and solidarity; she is not finally abandoned as heroines so often are in Brookner's novels. Lizzie will take care of Harriet and love her. Also, perhaps eventually, as is vaguely suggested, so will Lizzie's father.

The novel's ending lends itself to new expectations and open interpretations that profoundly modify the usually bleak final perspective of loneliness and lovelessness in which Brookner leaves her heroines at the end of their stories. It is a new voice for Brookner, that of a writer who has achieved a fresh vision after her long experience in dramatizing loneliness and closure. Harriet's affection for Lizzie promises to be fruitful and emphasizes the notions of surrogate motherhood and of female friendship.

Brookner continues to explore change in women's destiny in Fraud, published in 1992. Here she uses a device employed in other important female novels written in the last two decades: Atwood's Lady Oracle, Alison Lurie's Love and Friendship. Like Atwood's Joan Foster, Anne Durrant, the protagonist in Fraud, plans her own apparent death, only to survive in a better life. We encounter elements of female utopia and a parody of death that subvert the tradition and the literary genre that tended to specialize in the death of its heroines. Brookner's subversion of the convention in this novel becomes a new promising conclusion. Although the character in Fraud bears psychological features similar to the characters in her previous novels, Brookner dramatically transforms the destinies she devises for her heroines and their perceptions of themselves as creatures who must assume a tragic condition. She is far more daring and explicitly in Fraud than in her previous novel; we find the suggestion of an almost hopeful ending. At age fifty, Anna decides to disappear from her habitual English context, to do away with her old identity, to be born again, and to forget the self she does not feel comfortable with. After narrating her long life of loneliness and personal uncertainty, Brookner provides her heroine with the capacity to react against her dreary self.

Anna has also been a too obedient daughter who spent her best years looking after her mother. A few months after her mother's death, when the story begins, Anna is described as another of Brookner's lonely spinsters. “Like a daughter in a Victorian novel. Little Dorrit.” Initially seen through other characters, particularly through one of her few acquaintances, her mother's friend Mrs. Marsh, the elements of her uneasy identity are recognizable. The narrator admits that “Anna's feelings were masked by her terrifying all-purpose goodwill,” but the reader soon finds out, through Mrs. Marsh, that Anna's identity is more mysterious than it seems. She is in search of something, as proved by the sentence she often used that had puzzled her mother and continues to puzzle Mrs. Marsh: “It's not what I'm looking for.” Not knowing what she is looking for or her genuine interests and purposes, Anna accepts her mother's “hellish and absorbing” love and her “plaintive, pleading, gentle” possessiveness. Brookner traces this mother-daughter relationship with great care and subtlety. Anna is aware that “[t]hey had lived in a pleasant collaboration of unrealities, each secretly knowing that she was making a sacrifice for the other.” As the novel proceeds, the blame gradually but clearly falls on the mother who has used her weakness and her heart condition as an unspoken excuse to appropriate her daughter's life: “I've taken away her life… . I've ruined her life.” Amy Durrant recognizes it because “[Anna] had grown up with the knowledge that she must protect her mother from hurt, and that meant from the truth.” Anna reaches final awareness when she can admit to herself that in addition to the “mitral valve lesion … her mother's heart had failed in other ways.” After her mother had been dead for months, Anna continued to see her regularly in her meaningful dreams.

Her father's early death and her isolated life with her delicate mother meant there were few men in Anna's life. That absence, however, did not prevent her from understanding men with extraordinary clarity. She guesses correctly that her mother's late lover George Ainsworth, is cynical and unscrupulous; likewise she can distinguish the different aspects of Nick Marsh's vulgarity. Her real achievement is understanding Lawrence Halliday, the man she has always loved. She realizes “[h]e was betrayed by his looks, as she was by hears. If life had typecast her as a wise virgin, he was destined, by his irresolute blond handsomeness, to be the prey of women.” Halliday is also given a chance for self-expression. He recognizes Anna's value but allows himself to be seduced by a shallow and uninteresting woman, Vicky, whose shortcomings he soon realizes. In making Halliday recognize to himself his mistake in choosing Vicky for a wife and in allowing him to acknowledge how much happier Anna would have made him had he had the courage to marry her, Brookner grants Anna a moral authority that turns her into a true heroine.

Something about [Anna's] pristine remoteness attracted him, as might a temperate climate, a serious book. He read so little these days: his work kept him occupied, and his wife was talkative. He thought, once more, that he might have made another life with her [Anna], and suspected that it might be superior to the one he currently led.

Anna reminds him of his own dead mother, on whose goodness and sacrifice he always relied, but he has allowed Vicky to take over his life. It takes some time for Anna to understand her failure with Halliday. It takes the embarrassment of an evening at the Hallidays for her to realize the tragic personal and professional consequences of his weakness.

Anna felt immediate embarrassment on Lawrence's behalf… . She had even surprised him looking wistful, as if everything he cared for had been taken away from him…. No wonder he was such a good doctor. But he would not go far, for sharper minds than Vicky's would assess his suitability, would observe his wife. There would be dinner parties of greater consequence at the homes of colleagues, where it would be decided that Halliday, in the long run, would not make senior material.

At this stage in her novelistic career, Brookner finally distinguishes the heroes from the villains. Like Harriet, but far more lucidly and explicitly, Anna ends up in control—not only of her own story but of that of others. As soon as Anna returns from the Halliday dinner party, she takes off the “brown corded silk suit” she wears whenever she is invited out and decides to give it to her housekeeper.

Getting rid of the suit stands as a powerful metaphor for rejecting her past identity. The reader soon learns that after her disappearance she begins designing clothes for “[w]omen of my age.” Knowing herself undefined, a woman must first learn to choose her identity and her dress, before initiating any specific activity. As Harriet achieves a final understanding of death in the context of a Stendhal passage, Anna finally becomes aware of her “renewed feeling of power” by understanding the lines of a poem by Valéry.

“Après tant d'orgueil, après tant d'étrange oisivité …” How clever to put pride and apathy in the same category of misapprehension. How did it go on? The poet was after all seeking of change, of metamorphosis. “Après tant d'orgueil, après tant d'étrange oisivité, mais pleine de pouvoir …” That was it, the renewed feeling of power, power in the sense of strength, the strength born secretly, mysteriously, out of oisivité, idleness or inaction. It was the intimation of this strength which presaged change.

Anna's mysterious disappearance is not cleared up until the end of the novel when by chance she meets Philippa in a Parisian café. The question of the meaning of fraud is now explicitly introduced in the text: Philippa answers Anna's explanation of her disappearance by saying: “What a fraud you are, Anna,” For the first time, Brookner specifies the main subject she has tentatively and carefully explored in all her fiction: the terrible fraud to which women in particular, but sometimes also men, are often subjected by those who profess to love them, be they mothers or lovers. Philippa's conventional use of the concept of “fraud” becomes the key to Anna's self-explanation. The definition of the term suddenly turns into a matter of intense consequence to both characters.

“But there are many kinds of fraud,” answers Anna, “not all of them criminal. I rather think I have stopped being one, a fraud, I mean. Fraud was what was perpetrated on me by the expectations of others. They fashioned me in their own image, according to their needs. Fraud, in that sense, is alarmingly prevalent. And not only between the sexes. In the end I decided to escape.”

For the first time in her life Anna manages to communicate with Philippa and to awaken Philippa's desire for self-understanding to the point of alerting her to the notions of female abuse. Until now, Brookner has shown Anna as an uninspiring women with no experience whatsoever in love. Suddenly she gives her the wisdom not only to invite Philippa's confidence but to alert Philippa to the sudden and precise realization of her lover's exploitation of her:

“Yes, I thought I was happy,” she [Philippa] burst out. “He made me feel happy. But really I can only go on being happy if I'm married… .” “He should see that,” answers Anna, “if he's fond of you. If not, he doesn't know you at all. Or won't see. In which case it's another kind of fraud.”

Anna's new wisdom is defined in terms of her new capacity for expression, her linguistic precision in defining one term that best describes an experience that has been relevant to women's destiny, that of fraud. Her quick interpretation of the different kinds of fraud to which women are subjected implies a long and profound reading of a past in which women historically have been abused in the name of love, by the authority either of parents or lovers. The final image of the two women rejecting, almost simultaneously, the two most common forms of feminine exploitation, the two most subtle forms of fraud, implies a clear moral judgment on the part of the author. She not only allows her two heroines access to an unprecedented moral awareness but finally to decisions and action.

The last paragraph of the book becomes a significant summary of the changes introduced in Anna's story. After Anna leaves the café, Philippa remains along with her lover who has arrived in the meantime. Realizing the truth of Anna's words, and convinced by now that her lover is a fraud, Philippa decides to leave him. “Like Anna. [Philippa] hesitated, unwilling to take her leave. Then she turned resolutely, and followed the path which Anna had taken, out into the bright, dark, dangerous, and infinitely welcoming street.”

The careful wording of that paragraph is eloquently suggestive of the changed perspective in Brookner's artistic intentions. Guided by Anna's definition of the different kinds of fraud women may be subject to and by her suggestion that only a good cause is worth fighting for, Phillipa decides in the last scene to abandon a lover who does not love her enough to marry her. Although unwilling to leave, she finally does so resolutely. Anna has inspired her brave and difficult move and has taught her to leave her protected past, her accepted self, and to plunge into life, into a world that is at the same time bright and dark, menacing and welcoming.

A Closed Eye and Fraud offer new alternatives and interpretations of women's destinies and specific insights into the complexities of women's growth and independence. Those texts also prove that after the powerfully inspired female voices of self-assurance heard during the late 1970s and 1980s, after the convincing faith in the relevance of women's culture and its contribution to the understanding of women's selves and past, the voices of women writers in the 1990s can only look into the future with a rhetoric that is indisputably their own, a rhetoric that, having controlled anger, looks forward to creativity and perhaps opens up to reconciliation.

Claire Messud (review date 31 January 1999)

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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 hope, in the form of courage. Miriam is, above all, courageous: from the first, we are told that “if life were dull, as she had never expected it to be, she had always been stoical in the face of dullness.”

Brookner is, of course, the unrivaled mistress of the stifled life. Her novels are almost unbearable in their unflinching examination of isolation and disappointment; their elegant phrases and circumlocutory analyses, superficially obfuscatory, ultimately serve only to heighten the hideous bleakness of her characters’ lives. Miriam and Beatrice, like so many of Brookner's creations, are willfully hermitic. Beatrice has never found love because, unwilling to sacrifice her romantic ideals—based on novels that her sister deplores—she has waited in vain for Prince Charming to alight upon her doorstep. Miriam, after a brief, late marriage made in the spirit of compromise (“She put in train certain plans of her own,” Brookner writes of Miriam's choice of husband, “searching out the candidate least likely to disappoint her”), is single again, beetling her way between her apartment and the London Library. She encounters Simon Haggard, the married man who becomes her lover, only because he is Beatrice's new agent; and she meets Tom Rivers, improbably, on a gloomy solo walk to Regent's Park on Christmas Day.

The Sharpe sisters’ confinement initially seems like passivity. Of Miriam's career, we are told that “normally she was on quiet terms of acquiescence with the work she was employed to do, peacefully translating contemporary novels of no particular merit into English. It was not work she had actively sought; rather it had sought her.” The Sharpes’ lives of brisk walks and quiet teas would appear to have fallen upon them in much the same manner; but when the idea of socializing is mooted, Beatrice says with a sigh, “Don't you get tired of making an effort?”

Like George Bland in Brookner's novel A Private View, or Dorothea May in Visitors, Miriam and Beatrice are ultimately torn between an idealized hankering for connection and, far more powerfully, an almost greedy complacency about their unruffled existence. Just as George Bland fantasizes about marriage to the much younger intruder, Katy Gibb, or as Dorothea May imagines taking off to travel the world, so too does Beatrice trifle with the idea of a marriage of convenience to Max Gruber, her retired agent, and an old age in Monaco. But Brookner's characters act only in their dreams; like Chekhov's three sisters, who never make it to Moscow, Beatrice and Miriam are ultimately consigned to be stoical in the face of dullness, to embrace vacancy.

This inaction is not a result of passivity; nor is it, as Brookner would sometimes imply, a question of unyielding authenticity. It is a deliberate choice: Miriam and Beatrice despise women like their friend Suzanne, who “had exchanged her briefcase for marriage to a man she had met through a dating agency, and was now the matriarch of his house, complete with complement of three grown-up children and her husband's mother-in-law by his first wife, and who apparently had no regrets, and a new hearty tolerant laugh to go with her situation.”

Insofar as this isolation is a choice, it is a human failing, one that Brookner's protagonists, almost without exception, share, and one that brutally circumscribes her fiction. Brookner, in her repeated tracing of this trajectory of negation, seems smugly to condone it, and in so doing deprives her characters of tragedy. Early in this novel, as Miriam and Beatrice embark on another night at home, Brookner notes that “somewhere people were drinking, dining, entertaining each other, on an ordinary weekday evening, released from work, eager for pleasure. Only in the flat was life becalmed, and somehow it was right … that it should be so.” The supposed rightness of this deadened life is morally outrageous; but it is also recognizable, and humanly true. The ghastly power of Brookner's novels arises from their trenchant accuracy, and in this regard Falling Slowly is a further testament to its author's gifts. As a stylist, Brookner has been compared to Austen and James; but both those authors turned their pens to the robust inscription of life, whereas Brookner creates hymns only to its muffling and extinction. Her fiction—in this latest novel no less than in the others—is cautionary, and in its perverse acceptance of emptiness it exhorts us, as urgently as did E. M. Forster, to “only connect!”

Further Reading

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CRITICISM

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 “regressive conclusion.”

Dorris, Michael. “Ordinary People.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (7 July 1991): 3, 9.

A positive review of Brief Lives.

Gee, Maggie. “Don't Just Do It, Have a Good Think About It.” New Statesman (1 August 1997): 47.

A tempered review of Visitors.

Heeger, Susan. “Small Lives under Siege.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (13 February 1994): 10.

A positive review of Dolly.

Kaiser, Mary. Review of Visitors. World Literature Today72, No. 2 (Spring 1998): 367.

A favorable review of Visitors.

Kendall, Elaine. “Like Miniver Cheevy, Born too Late.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (25 March 1990): 3.

A favorable review of Lewis Percy.

King, Francis. “Some Delightful Scenes.” Spectator (8 September 1990): 33.

A tempered review of Brief Lives.

Leonard, Elmore. “All the Lonely People.” Washington Post Book Review (31 January 1993): 3.

Assesses the style of Fraudas somewhat borrowed from the 1930's and writer Evelyn Waugh.

Moore, Caroline. “Letting ‘I Dare Not’ Wait Upon ‘I Would.’”Spectator (31 August 1991): 25-6.

A tempered review of A Closed Eye.

———. “A Miss is as Good as Amis.” Spectator (15 June 1996): 39.

A favorable review of Altered States.

Radin, Victoria. “Life Denied.” New Statesman and Society (12 August 1992): 38.

An unfavorable review of Fraud.

Rich, Barbara. “Unacknowledged Lives.” Women's Review of Books IX, Nos. 10-11 (July 1992): 30.

A favorable review of Fraud.

Sellers, Frances Stead. “The Wilder Shores of Love.” Washington Post Book Review (15 January 1995): 8.

A favorable review of A Private View.

Skinner, John. “Novel Departures.” In The Fictions of Anita Brookner: Illusions of Romance, pp. 66-112. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1992.

Provides analysis of the narrative structure, characters, and major themes in Hotel du Lac, examining in particular aspects of textual authority and anxiety.

Tonkin, Boyd. “Cash Values.” New Statesman and Society (24 June 1994): 40.

A positive review of A Private View.

Wood, James. “Aspic of the Novel.” New Republic (24 April 1995): 41-2.

A tempered review of A Private View.

Additional coverage of Brookner's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Contemporary Authors, Vols. 114, 120; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 37, 56, 87; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 194; Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook, Vol. 87; DISCovering Authors 3.0; DISCovering Authors: British; DISCovering Authors Modules: Popular Fiction and Genre Authors; and Major 20th-Century Writers, Vols. 1, 2.

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Anita Brookner World Literature Analysis

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