Anita Brookner Analysis

Other literary forms

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

A distinguished historian of eighteenth and nineteenth century French art and culture, Anita Brookner wrote several books of nonfiction before she began to write novels. Watteau (1968) is an assessment of the early eighteenth century French artist Antoine Watteau. The Genius of the Future: Studies in French Art Criticism—Diderot, Stendhal, Baudelaire, Zola, the Brothers Goncourt, Huysmans (1971) is a collection of six essays on seven French writers, with each writer considered in the context of his time; the book devotes the greatest space to discussion of Charles Baudelaire. Greuze: The Rise and Fall of an Eighteenth-Century Phenomenon (1972), a study of the French painter Jean-Baptiste Greuze, is Brookner’s successful attempt to locate the background of a sentimental genre that is distinct from both rococo andclassicism. Jacques-Louis David (1980), a biography of the foremost painter of the French revolutionary period, explores the relationship between David’s life and his work, places that work in the context of contemporary French painting, and details a career that spanned some of the most turbulent years in French history. Soundings, a collection of essays, was published in 1997, and the study Romanticism and Its Discontents appeared in 2000. Brookner’s translations include Utrillo (1960) and The Fauves (1962). In addition, she has written many articles, introductions, and reviews on art history and on both French and English literature that have appeared in such publications as the Burlington Magazine, The London Review of Books, The Times Literary Supplement, The Spectator, and The Sunday Times. Some of these pieces are collected in Soundings.


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Anita Brookner suddenly began to write fiction during her middle years, while she was still an active teacher and scholar. Although she continued her academic career, she quickly found equal success as a novelist. With the publication of several novels, she gained an international following and widespread critical acclaim. In 1984, Great Britain’s prestigious Man Booker Prize for Fiction was awarded to Hotel du Lac. Brookner was praised for her elegant and precise prose, her acute sense of irony, and her subtle insights into character and social behavior. Her witty explorations of manners and morals suggest to many a literary kinship to Jane Austen and Barbara Pym. While Brookner’s somber, more complex moral vision disallows any sustained comparison to Pym, Austen and Brookner undeniably share a common concern for intelligent, subtle, clever heroines who seek to satisfy both private sensibility and public expectations.

To regard Brookner’s novels as simply traditional novels of manners, however, is to misconstrue her art. Brookner’s intentions greatly exceed this conventional genre; her achievements, indeed, take her far beyond it. Perhaps it is more useful to note the singularity of her contribution to British letters. Her highly developed pictorial sense, her baroque diction, with its balance of reason and passion, and her allusive, richly textured narratives, haunting in their resonances, reflect at every turn her extensive knowledge of the materials and motifs of eighteenth and nineteenth century paintings and literature.

Brookner’s works have been generously admired, but some dissenting voices have been raised. She is occasionally brought to task for creating fictive worlds too narrow in scope and claustrophobic in their intensity; for overzealous, self-conscious, schematic writing; and for excessive sentimentality that unfortunately evokes the pulp romance. Brookner’s worlds, however, are invariably shaped toward significant moral revelations, and technique rarely intrudes to the detriment of story. Brookner’s ability to maintain an ironic distance from her characters, one that allows her to reveal sentimentality, to make judgments dispassionately, is one of her greatest strengths as a writer.

Discussion Topics

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

How does the theme of exile shape Anita Brookner’s characters and affect their behavior and perceptions of cultural differences?

Analyze how Brookner’s descriptions of residences and domestic life reveal characters’ mind-sets. Contrast how several of her characters define their concept of home.

Discuss the significance of childhood memories to Brookner’s characters and how the literary device of flashbacks either deepens or distracts from her characterizations and plots.

How effective is Brookner’s inclusion of characters’ letters, both mailed and unsent, as a literary style?

Compare characters’ resignation and conformity to traditional gender and familial roles. How do themes of love, sacrifice, and disappointment permeate Brookner’s novels?

Examine how references to art and literature enhance the themes in Brookner’s fiction. Discuss how possessing keen intellects strengthens or diminishes her characters’ lives.

Analyze how despair seems essential for character development in Brookner’s works.

Discuss Brookner’s use of humor and how it balances her dramatic storytelling.


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Baxter, Gisèle Marieks. “Cultural Experiences and Identity in the Early Novels of Anita Brookner.” English 42 (Summer, 1993): 125-139. Three central characters of early Brookner novels attempt (unsuccessfully) to find the formulas of literary romance in their lives. They aspire not to the traditional aristocracy or even to the world of the gentry, but to the financially secure ideal of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s era.

Bjorkblom, Inger. The Plane of Uncreatedness: A Phenomenological Study of Anita Brookner’s Late Fiction. Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell International, 2001. Presents a philosophical/psychological study of Brookner’s fiction, focusing on her later works, with special reference to the complexities of heroism, boredom, ennui, and helplessness in the novels. Works discussed include Lewis Percy, Visitors, and Falling Slowly.

Fisher-Wirth, Ann. “Hunger Art: The Novels of Anita Brookner.” Twentieth Century Literature 41 (Spring, 1995): 1-15. At first glance, Brookner’s heroines seem to be women trapped in a patriarchal world who accept their humiliation. A closer reading reveals that Brookner treats the universal human situation.

Haffenden, John. Novelists in Interview. London: Methuen, 1985. Includes a lively, substantial interview with...

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