Anita Brookner Brookner, Anita (Vol. 32) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Anita Brookner 1938–

English novelist and critic.

Brookner's three novels are considered sensitive, well-crafted stories about what Robert Taubman calls "the subjugation and defeat of an intelligent heroine." Brookner's first novel, A Start in Life (1981), tells of a middle-aged academic's unsuccessful attempt to free herself from her clinging parents. Providence (1982) is the story of a scholar of Romanticism who finds her life dull and disappointing but is unable to change. Look at Me (1983) generated the most substantial critical response. This story of a timid medical librarian who fails at love and withdraws into her writing as a substitute for living was generally praised as a thoughtful study of alienation.

Annie Gottlieb

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Anita Brookner's first novel, "The Debut" [published in Great Britain as "A Start in Life," is less in the Romantic tradition than ironic]…. Its English heroine, Ruth Weiss, is a 40-year-old academic whose timid attempts to seize life are overwhelmed by her aging yet childish parents and by the weight of European culture they impose upon her. In her childhood world, youth was the anachronism. Her parents and the books that surrounded her embodied the vitality of the past, the perverse appeal of decay (the chilling portrait of Ruth's deliquescent mother is right out of Christina Stead). The wisdom and folly of the past seem to mock her efforts toward a new beginning; what's the use, it's all been done. An omniscient weary narrator watches with pity and irony as Ruth tries to fuel her brief rebellion with literature. Balzac was right, she decides, Dickens was wrong; the bad have a good time, the virtuous are wallflowers at the ball. And off she goes to Paris to have affairs.

But Ruth seems to be a renunciant by fate or nature. She lacks the robust sexual selfishness that would allow her to take from others. Or perhaps the demands she makes of life are too pure, so that what other people take isn't worth much to her and renunciation becomes the idealist's instinctive escape from disappointment. For whatever reason, Ruth ends up back in London caring for her widowed invalid father in a manner more companionable than incestuous. For those who are at ease in the hyperliterate atmosphere of English novels—and especially for those who can also read the occasional French phrases—this is a precise and haunting little performance. (p. 14)

Annie Gottlieb, "Three Hapless Heroines," in The New York Times Book Review, March 29, 1981, pp. 14-15.∗

Nicholas Shrimpton

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[A Start in Life is] the sort of book which gives feminist writing a good name. A Start in Life sets the experience of a modern woman academic, working on Balzac, against the plot of Eugénie Grandet. The craftsmanship is, if anything, almost too sedulous. But it produces a very pungent fable about the sacrifice of daughters to the needs of their elderly parents.

Nicholas Shrimpton, "Bond at 70," in New Statesman, Vol. 101, No. 2618, May 22, 1981, p. 21.∗

Robert Taubman

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Kitty in Providence is the sort of heroine an author invents in order to subject her to a life of disappointments. These are mitigated for her by academic interests—hers in the Romantic tradition, her lover's in French cathedrals. The novel is warm and delightful about donnish life, exhibiting its own kind of donnishness in a sentence like 'The dog was very old, and did not seem particularly viable.' But Kitty's plight is to be half-French, and her common sense, her clothes sense and her solid affections are all on her French side. She lives in Chelsea, but her England is a fantasy constructed around a dead soldier-father and a lover she cannot picture…. Worse: the lover is indeed as near as one can get to a fantasy Englishman, a professor with a pleasant vague smile, 'wandering around with a cup in one hand and a saucer in the other, a signet ring just visible on the finger beneath the saucer'. Ruth, in Anita Brookner's first novel, was in love with a professor with 'a neutral, faintly resigned presence': but Kitty's case is even more hopeless. Maurice is not only English, but specifically upper-class Gloucestershire; and Kitty loses him to a girl in her own seminar, out of the same Gloucestershire top drawer, who does what Kitty can't and wouldn't ever do—wear her brother's pullovers. Providence is absolutely a love story, and restates, without accounting for, the fact that neither reason nor objective grounds for liking or disliking have anything to do with falling in love. Kitty, an expert on the Romantics, only confirms the 19th-century stereotype: one thinks of Lucy Snowe in Villette. Yet Kitty doesn't get as much support from her author as Lucy Snowe. It's made to look only ironical that she is intelligent and sensitive and teaches two strenuous seminars on Romantic love in Adolphe. But one wonders why Anita Brookner should spend so much delicacy and irony on situations which she has planned from the start will come to nothing. This is now her second novel about the subjugation and defeat of an intelligent heroine. (pp. 18-19)

Robert Taubman, "Submission," in London Review of Books, May 20 to June 2, 1982, pp. 18-19.∗

Elaine Jordan

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Frances, who begins to write her own story (which we have just read) on the last page of Look at me, is tougher than many reviewers have made her seem. Her melancholy retrospect shows a bravery of wit. More than this, she has her revenge. 'Look at me' has two ranges of tone: sad ('just look at me now') or demanding attention with the gaiety of self-assertion. What Frances is denied is not simply love, but good manners. It is the public devaluation of her by the group she so admires that devastates her. When she regains composure, she will seek them out again, apparently meekly, but with an undeclared purpose: 'I needed them for material.' This is not how a well-mannered person should treat her acquaintance, but look at the previously admired Alix Fraser: 'Alix stubbed out her cigarette in the remains of her yellow custard and smeared red over her wide mouth.' This is not a novel of scenes but a meditation on experience in the French tradition.

One problem is how far Frances is presented ironically. The sharpening of her self-knowledge often seems excessively depreciatory, while her bedazzlement by the aura and gusto of the Frasers can hardly be shared by the reader: we can't look at them, and the author doesn't give them marvellous things to say—they are just abominable. It is hard to know whether this is because the writer's early experience of them is constantly attended by the sadism of revenge or whether she just cannot capture in words what makes them so fascinating. (p. 23)

Elaine Jordan, "Travelling," in London Review of Books, April 21 to May 4, 1983, pp. 22-3.∗

Stephen Harvey

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

For the heroine of Anita Brookner's novel [Look at Me], life is a bitter pill, and no wonder. Endowed with private means, she lives with an elderly housekeeper in the London mausoleum/flat in which her mother expired after a lingering illness. For fun Frances has entombed herself in a medical library, where she curates a collection of prints and engravings depicting Disease Through the Ages. Her girlhood friend is a soft-spoken cripple, and her closest attachment is to a trio of vivacious sybarites who ignore Frances when they're not ridiculing her. But Frances's dreariest fate, if she only realized it, is to be trapped inside her own precious, suffocating self.

And since she is the narrator/protagonist of this introverted book, the hapless reader is trapped right along with her. Frances characterizes herself as a self-effacing observer, who longs to act and be noticed. "I needed to learn, from experts," she sighs, "that pure egotism that had always escaped me"; if you ask me Frances does just fine in that department on her own. Rarely has a novel been so cluttered with the first-person-singular-pronoun; Frances's "I" appears 34 times on page 123 alone. Moreover for someone who prides herself on acuity of vision, her description of the supporting characters dominating her rich interior life is remarkably hazy….

The real problem is that Anita Brookner doesn't derive much fun out of Frances's suffering either. If Brookner had betrayed some inkling that her protagonist really deserves no better than she gets (or gives), this might have been an arresting, ironic novel. But Look at Me seems intended to be read as a delicate tragedy of alienation—the slow descent of a guileless misfit, intelligent enough to understand her lot, and too passive to change it. By the end, Frances has repaired to her mother's deathbed and pledged to become a novelist, to use writing as a substitute for living. Look at Me is precisely what a woman like Frances would come up with—schematic, self-conscious fiction which is a substitute for literature.

Stephen Harvey, in a review of "Look at Me," in The Village Voice, Vol. XXVIII, No. 27, July 5, 1983, p. 46.

Julia Epstein

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The heroine of [Look at Me] … catalogues images in a medical library—images of melancholy, of madness, of nightmare, of disease and affliction. Pictures by Géricault, El Greco, Durer, Goya, a gallery of morbid visions, pass through her hands daily ("our collection is rather naturally weighted towards the incalculable or the undiagnosed"). Her function in the world, as she defines it, is to maintain her files: to nod, to smile politely, to fetch and carry, to observe, to record, to be one of the "watchers at the feast."

Not a very promising heroine. But Look at Me is a nearly impossible achievement, a novel about emptiness and vacancy, about the shambling tread of the aged and the emotionally rigid, about the sort of apparently dull person whose idea of chic is "a pale grey dress with a white puritan collar and a black bow at the neck." Brookner makes that person riveting in her ragged self-knowledge, her ability to look in a mirror, see precisely what others see, and know the image to be false….

To write a novel about writing a novel is hardly new. But Brookner alters the frame slightly, so that her subject is not the writing but the gathering and absorbing and sifting of quotidian detail, meals and disappointments, through the sieve of language and into the moiling cauldron of the imagination. Her novel is not so much self-reflexive as self-digesting, its material imaged and converted into prose even as it unfolds in Frances' life.

In Look at Me, Anita Brookner has accomplished what Flaubert once set out to do: to write "a book about nothing," which is to say a book about language, a Bouvard et Pécuchet of the soul. Look at Me is simultaneously a tragedy of solitude and loss, and a triumph of the sharp-tongued controlling self. Brookner's first novel, The Debut, marked off some of this territory, but with a sulkier and a more tentative hand. In Look at Me, Brookner unveils a portrait of the melancholic woman, "overpowered by her inability to take the world's measure … a garland in her tangled hair," as she unveils a narrative voice in full sail.

Julia Epstein, "Images of Melancholy," in Book World—The Washington Post, July 24, 1983, p. 6.

Frances Taliaferro

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In the past two years, Anita Brookner's novels The Debut and Look at Me have delighted readers here and in Great Britain. With Providence,… she effectively claims her territory as a writer. "Territory" may, however, be too large a word to suit these politely agoraphobic works. With several other British novelists of past and present, Anita Brookner shares a love of order and pattern, a discreet sense of humor, and a piquant awareness of manners, as well as a rather small canvas. These are novels for a disciplined sensibility—not the excesses of the groaning board but the light sufficiency of the luncheon table; not Wagner crashing through the symphony hall but Brahms suffusing the chamber with...

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Kathleen Kearns

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Kitty Maule is a watcher, reserved, intelligent, and controlled. The subject of her scrutiny, and of … Providence, is her life. It is an interesting enough life, in a modest sort of way, and Kitty knows precisely what it contains and what it lacks…. She can catalogue her yearnings for religious faith, and see how she should go about winning the man she longs for. She is a keen observer, but by the end of Providence it is clear that she has gotten it all wrong.

The novel is full of missed signals; Kitty is so absorbed in her deficiencies that she cannot see them for what they are…. [Whenever] she does feel the stirrings of faith, or even of spontaneous emotion, she quickly suppresses them. She smothers whatever is "too dangerous to contemplate," or too intimate to be revealed incautiously. Even her impatience with restraint is restrained….

When soul-searching becomes too distressing, Kitty immerses herself in her work. Not surprisingly, she is professionally concerned with the Romantic Tradition and the tension between intellectual repudiation of the existence of God and desire for a spiritual sign. Brookner is thus able to construct an elaborate intellectual framework for Kitty's crisis, a framework that becomes problematic for both Kitty and the novel. (p. 39)

At … [certain moments] it is difficult to distinguish Brookner's perspective from Kitty's. Having set up the parallels between her character's obsessions and corresponding theoretical issues, she seems a little unsure of how to proceed. In her last novel, Look at Me, she exposed the ironies of her characters' predicaments with agile wit. Here, though, she is often too absorbed in presenting her themes to make clear how she feels about Kitty's cosmic preoccupations. The most casual conversation is loaded: in a railway car a chaperone dreads arriving in Paris with his rambunctious charges and sighs, "God help me," to which Kitty responds, "Why should God help you?" An uncomfortable sense emerges that Brookner wants to be critical of her tiresome heroine, even make fun of her, but can't quite bring herself to do it. (pp. 39-40)

Kathleen Kearns, in a review of "Providence," in The New Republic, Vol. 190, No. 12, March 26, 1984, pp. 39-40.