Anita Brookner Brookner, Anita (Vol. 134) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Anita Brookner 1928-

English novelist, critic, art historian, biographer, editor, and translator.

The following entry presents an overview of Brookner's career through 1998. For further information on Brookner's life and works, see CLC, Volumes 32, 34, and 51.

A popular and prolific novelist, Anita Brookner is admired for her lucid, finely crafted prose and realistic portrayals of lonely, sensitive women who are often betrayed by unrealistic notions of love and marriage. Brookner's studies of everyday life and desperation commonly feature children dominated by selfish parents, isolated women who search in vain for love and social integration, and English characters who feel out of place in their native country. Though Brookner insists that she is not a feminist, her work is consistently praised for its penetrating psychological portraits of intelligent women whose self-fulfillment is undermined by personal insecurities, undeserved malice, and demands imposed by careers, marriage, and motherhood.

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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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


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William McPherson (review date 10 February 1985)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Robert Jones (review date 20 September 1985)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Patricia Waugh (essay date 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 5145 words.)

Jonathan Yardley (review 12 March 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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....

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John Updike (review date 1 May 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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,...

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Rosemary Dinnage (review date 1 June 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Phillip Lopate (review date 11 March 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Joyce Reiser Kornblatt (review date 21 July 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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”?...

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Carolyn Cooke (review date 9 September 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Jane Smiley (review date 22 March 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Constance Casey (review date 12 April 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Ursula Hegi (review date 10 January 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Gisèle Marie Baxter (essay date Summer 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Frank Kermode (review date 19 June 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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David Galef (essay date Winter 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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....

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Jonathan Yardley (review date 9 January 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Carol Kino (review date 20 February 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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John Bayley (review date 18 June 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Linda Simon (review date 8 January 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 854 words.)

Frederick Busch (review date 22 January 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Hermione Lee (review date 30 January 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Ann Fisher-Wirth (essay date Spring 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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....

(The entire section is 5865 words.)

Teresa Waugh (review date 17 June 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Hilary Mantel (review date 14 January 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 831 words.)

Anne Roiphe (review date 16-30 December 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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....

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Deborah Mason (review date 26 January 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 883 words.)

Heller McAlpin (review date 9 February 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 1018 words.)

Max Egremont (review date 7 June 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 716 words.)

Jacqueline Carey (review date 18 January 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 859 words.)

Aránzazu Usandizaga (essay date Summer 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Claire Messud (review date 31 January 1999)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.”


(The entire section is 974 words.)

Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary 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.


(The entire section is 493 words.)