In the books which have established her reputation as one of England’s leading novelists, Anita Brookner has largely focused on lonely middle-aged women. In an elegant, analytical prose marked by irony and understatement, she has painted somber portraits of her heroines, single women with fine sensibilities confronting the callousness of the narcissistic. With its portrayal of the lives of two male figures, Latecomers thus represents a new departure for Brookner. The same formal, ironic style is here, the frequent references to literature and art, the concern for moral and philosophical issues. What is notably different, besides the substitution of males—not one, but two married men—as central characters, is the overall joyousness of Latecomers. Despite the tragic early background of its heroes, Latecomers is a novel of personal triumph and shared survival.
In a Paris Review interview (Fall, 1987), Brookner discussed her childhood as the daughter of Polish-Jewish exiles living in London. Born on the eve of World War II, the child of melancholy, broody parents, she devotes Latecomers to exploring the lives of European refugee children who were separated from their parents and sent to England to escape persecution and death at the hands of the Nazis. Despite the sociopolitical themes implicit in this subject, Brookner chooses to focus on the personal, the emotional upheaval that immigration and separation from parents, all of whom died, presumably in concentration camps, wrought in the lives of the survivors. The novel traces the stories of two men, Thomas Hartmann, a twelve- year-old Munich boy at the time of his immigration, and Thomas Fibich, a five-year-old Berliner. Cut off from all relations, with the exception of Hartmann’s Aunt Marie, the two were sent to an English boarding school where they met and became inseparable friends. The novel portrays their lifelong friendship and business association, their marriages to women also scarred by the past, and the lives of their children.
Narrated from an omniscient point of view, Latecomers relies quite heavily on character contrasts. Hartmann and Fibich, who are referred to by their surnames since both are called Thomas, are striking opposites, as are their wives, Yvette Hartmann and Christine Fibich, and their children, Marianne and Toto. Where Hartmann is “sunny and insouciant,” Fibich is “melancholy.” More important, it is Hartmann who, though he remembers the past and is wearied by its pain, does not allow himself to dwell on it. The image of his well-dressed parents being carried off in a horsecart is a memory he consciously chooses to suppress. His philosophy—echoed in the refrain “Look! We have come through!”—places him in direct contrast to Fibich, who allows the past to work “actively” in his life, at times seeming “almost to take him over.” Yet in spite of their “diametrically opposed” temperaments, Brookner writes that the two men “had been together since childhood and could no more think of living apart than they could of divorcing their wives.” In fact, Latecomers develops from the proposition that two men who are complete opposites can find assured identity and harmony as friends and business associates precisely because of their shared grief: the early loss of families and homeland that has made survival and domesticity very “important to them both.” Thus, though Fibich is the frightened romantic idealist at times locked in the prison of self-absorption, the common bond of a lost childhood, the very cause of much of his anguish, ties him irrevocably to Hartmann, whose name suggests what he is, a “heart man” able to find pleasures in the moment and to recognize that “after all, he had survived: that was all that mattered in any life.”
Yvette and Christine are also ironically contrasted. Indeed, the characterization of the two women recalls heroines in earlier Brookner novels. One, Yvette, is the frivolous, narcissistic woman, lacking depth and concerned primarily with material surroundings and the “excellent presentation” of herself. The other, Christine, is the somber observer and compassionate moralist, the follower and adviser of the more vivacious if superficial Yvette. It is she, moreover, who feels “inadequate as a woman,” especially in rearing her son, Toto. As with Hartmann and Fibich, what unites Yvette and Christine, apart from their husbands’ long friendship and business association and their being neighbors, is a shared grief: They too have suffered the loss of a parent in childhood. Though Yvette leads a life of distraction, she eventually learns the true character of her father, a Nazi sympathizer assassinated during the occupation of France. Like Fibich, she has a hidden, painful past that must be uncovered, and her refulgent appearance testifies to the significance of survival.
Like their parents, Marianne and Toto are also set up as opposites and as the counterparts of their parents. The somber, obedient, passive Marianne seems more suited to be the child of Christine and Fibich, while the raucous, egocentric Toto is better matched to Yvette, the only one able to handle him successfully when he is a baby. Ironically, in later life, it is Marianne who disappoints her parents, while Christine and Fibich, both of whom felt inadequate as parents to deal with Toto, learn to accept and love their son. Toto himself though estranged from his parents during his school years, grows to resemble his withdrawn and handsome father and to long for home and family.
As suggested by the above descriptions, Latecomers focuses not on plot but character. The plot of the book is simply the life stories of the four main characters and their children. Latecomers is...
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