Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2510
If George Orwell’s avowed motive for writing was to get back at the grownups, it could be said with equal justice that Anita Brookner’s novel is part of a campaign to get back at the spoiled children. Among these spoiled children, who at first appear charming to the novel’s heroine,...
(The entire section contains 2584 words.)
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- Critical Essays
If George Orwell’s avowed motive for writing was to get back at the grownups, it could be said with equal justice that Anita Brookner’s novel is part of a campaign to get back at the spoiled children. Among these spoiled children, who at first appear charming to the novel’s heroine, Frances Hinton, the most prominent are Nick Fraser, who is doing research at the institute where Frances works, and his upper-class wife, Alix. The title of the book under review, then, is interesting for several reasons but above all for a paradoxical one: The moral of the story has much to do with how shallow “looking” really is, and how images can lie.
Such a concern comes naturally to a writer such as Anita Brookner, whose chief scholarly interest is in the field of art history. In fact, her principal reputation—despite such previous novels as A Start in Life (1981; published in the United States as The Debut, 1981) and Providence (1982; whose theme is in some respects quite similar to that of Look at Me)—has been as a chronicler of artists, in, for example, Jacques-Louis David (1980), or of art critics, as in The Genius of the Future (1971). It is not surprising, then, that Frances files “photographs of works of art” with “doctors and patients” in them, with special emphasis on “dreams and madness” and a general concern with “the incalculable or the undiagnosed.” (The institute deals with problems of “human behavior.”) The opening sequence of the novel depicts the variety of morbid iconography she must file interwoven with descriptions—well-nigh clinical—of the other workers and patrons of the library, whose images begin to meld into those of the art prints, not so much in the narrator’s rendering as in the reader’s mind.
This melding is quite strategic on Brookner’s part. Her heroine inhabits a world of dull routine with an undercurrent of horror and death—a combination that also obtains in her apartment, which has seen the deaths of both of Frances’ parents, and which Nancy, the family retainer, lovingly preserves in a style of 1950’s kitsch that provokes trendy Nick and Alix Fraser to shameless mocking delight when they visit. Frances’ apartment, like the library, is both a prison and a mausoleum, where unchanging rules of etiquette keep the votive lamp burning for the dead, even though this faithfulness to ancestral memory depresses the living descendant. Frances grows restive with the constant reminders that “everyone was, more or less, dying” and begins to feel she has “lived with all this for far too long.”
The chosen vehicle of escape becomes the Frasers, who bestow their gracious attentions upon Frances for a while. Frances’ coworker, Olivia, observing how she is swept up by the Frasers, sees the bourgeoisie vanquished once again by “the brutal fascination of the upper classes,” and her assessment becomes increasingly persuasive as the book progresses. The Frasers’ chic Kensington flat stands in sharp contrast to Frances’ entirely respectable, entirely stuffy building north of Hyde Park, a building “full of small elderly people.” Nick’s and Alix’s giddy social exuberance, of which noisy, rapacious dining at top-flight restaurants is the repeated emblem, puts into cruel relief Frances’ monthly Sunday visits to old Miss Morpeth, her predecessor at the library and thus also her dread alter ego, at which times they share tea, cake, bread and butter, and studiedly pointless conversation. Despite their mutual tolerance, which slips fatally on one last visit, it is clear that Miss Morpeth dislikes Frances and finds the sessions as unendurable as her visitor does. As the polite visitor sits in Miss Morpeth’s genteel flat, “eating the bread of affliction,” she understands with dawning clarity why, despite Miss Morpeth’s persistent invitations, the Frasers have been reluctant to enter the “kingdom of the shades” that the lady’s home has begun to resemble. According to Frances, the sympathies of this dashing couple lie always “with the successful, not the unsuccessful, with the moneyed rather than with the poor, with the fortunate rather than with the unlucky.”
Even though Frances acknowledges feeling at times like “a beggar at their feast,” it is easy to see that the Frasers’ very superficiality, their heedless cruelty and assumption of prerogative is precisely what attracts her (and everyone else in the sad library) to these two. She purposes to “see how the others, the free ones, conducted their lives,” so that she can begin her own. That same quality of slightly careless brutality which fascinates Frances also leads the reader to suspect a level of Jamesian social intrigue on the Frasers’ part, especially given the manipulative skill of Alix. (Both on the first and the last occasions on which she appears in this novel, Alix initially is glimpsed trying out varied arrangements of her hair and asking the assembled men which way is the prettiest: a powerful demonstration of narcissism’s power.) Common sense suggests that having swept Frances up in such a whirlwind fashion, the Frasers could well drop her with equal suddenness. The only question becomes when they will do it. When they do, however, the subtle changes in their manner toward her, the tiny snubs that can never be pinned down, the calculated averting of eyes are all brought out with a mordant connoisseur’s touch.
The agent that hastens this process of disenchantment is James Anstey, the other researcher being funded by the institute along with Nick. It emerges that Nick and Alix seem interested in Frances as a partner for James: They find a use for her. As Frances and James begin to see each other, Alix calls constantly, wanting all the details. (The voyeurism of the alliance between Frances and the Frasers apparently goes two ways.) Eventually, James’s “reticence,” which initially Frances finds “very exciting,” turns to—was it always?—a kind of finicky disinterest. In a completion of the Jamesian situation, Frances discovers, well after the fact, that another of the Frasers’ circle is actually James’s lover. The only remaining ambiguity, never resolved, concerns how long the “other woman” has been a factor. Since the novel, in the manner of Henry James’s The Golden Bowl (1904), centers on Frances’ consciousness—indeed has Frances for its narrator—one is left to wonder with her at what point, if ever, James Anstey changed his mind. In any case, Frances has certainly been not only an observer or even a beggar at the Frasers’ banquet but also one of the courses. This voracious crowd obviously goes through its people very quickly.
It is for the heroine a doubly bitter return to loneliness: loneliness, incidentally, rendered here about as well as it has ever been. The “Public Holiday Syndrome,” especially acute on Christmas, and the horror of Sunday afternoons, along with the paradoxical pleasure of anticipating Monday morning, “that time that other people dread,” pass in grimly detailed review. The climax of the novel, Frances’ return home after learning the full truth about James—or as much as she cares to learn—is a summation of these motifs. Leaving the Frasers’ party after their Kensington restaurant dinner, she walks through London; the narrative intersperses an account of the scenes she encounters with her reflections on her relationship with the Frasers. Frances has caused no embarrassment at the dinner (her characteristic description of herself is “blameless”); crucially, she betrays outwardly none of the murderous hatred she feels. Her “own reflection” in the glass front of the Harvey Nichols store is “small, slight, undeniably chic . . . poised,” offering no clue to passersby, as she has scarcely given a clue to the Frasers, of her sense of betrayal and defilement. (The face of Dr. Weiss, a female academic in The Debut, with a similarly opaque quality, also elicits “no speculation whatsoever” from the passing observer.) Except for one incident in the Marble Arch underpass, where a drunk tries to grab her sleeve, momentarily banishing her numbness, little if anything happens on this long march to Edgware Road and “the home stretch.” One could say as well that little happens in the famous meditation chapter in Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady (1881), in which heroine Isabel Archer begins to add two and two, yet that scene is the pivot of James’s novel. In the same way, this long walk is the pivot of Look at Me, and the heroine knows it, “my mind kept saying: something has happened.”
What, though, has happened after all? Simply that Frances, who has up until now made a hobby of writing short stories, decides this night to “get serious” about it and complete a novel. She commences to live her own life, but ironically—and, one is given to understand, instructively—she has not won self-fulfillment by changing her role to more perfectly emulate “the free ones.” Quite the opposite: It is in being rejected by that circle that she is freed to return to herself, to her situation, with the sad wisdom required to be clear about it. In the past, writing has been for Frances merely a way to alleviate loneliness; the Frasers, in throwing her back on herself, inadvertently have given her both a topic and the time to explore it.
Brookner understands well the narcissistic motive behind the writing of fiction (the heroine in fact often repeats the words of the title to herself), but as mentioned at the outset, much of the book’s impact stems from a critique of the vanity in that motive. The beguiling perfect couple, Nick and Alix, seem ready for the caption in “those old copies of the Tatler” that say “pictured here enjoying a joke.” This ceases to beguile once it is clearer that the joke is always at someone’s expense. Thus, the description of the Frasers, always vivid, grows more grotesque as the story progresses, until these enfants terribles are rendered as “lords of misrule” ensconced amid “the collapsing ruins of puddings” with their “idle hands searching lazily for nuts, sweetmeats, marzipan.” Significantly, this scene is actually Frances’ fond fantasy on Christmas Day, and it compares favorably to the drear, shabby convocation occurring at her own flat on that day. One of the realizations Frances has is that the appeal of the Frasers, with their grasping hands and open mouths, owes to a childish appetite that the heroine herself possesses but never displays as they do. Their appeal is infantile, though undeniably strong, and their unself-conscious narcissism is part of what compels Frances to write—with the important difference that now she is aware of that fact.
There is also, without much question, an element of revenge in Frances’ writing: “These scenes, these actions, to be retrieved, at a later date, intact.” The observer becomes a participant, the victim a prosecutor. A clear, accurate portrayal of the beautiful people, fully noting their power to charm and the plain heroine’s complicity in that power, makes them nevertheless very ugly. Their images have not exactly been defaced, but they have been revealed for the deceptions they truly are. “Sometimes an image stands for something that will only be understood in due course”; this cryptic remark of the heroine’s early in the novel becomes bleakly apposite when applied to Nick and Alix. Michel de Montaigne says in his essay on physiognomy that beautiful people who do wrong should be executed for betraying the promise written on their brows. Whether Frances agrees with that sentiment, there is no doubt that the characters of the Frasers are well executed indeed.
The center of all this turbulence, however, is the relationship between the heroine and James Anstey, and this is the book’s major flaw. In a narrative notable for its lively, observant eye for detail, James is a curiously dim and dour figure, lamely drawn, and Frances’ attitude toward him, both in her capacity as narrator and as companion, is so understated as to be insignificant. The short shrift given this allegedly central figure, and the mists of vagueness in which he is complacently cloaked, make his loss less an issue than Frances’ feeling of humiliation or bad judgment. That he is a figure of scant interest means that his abandonment of the heroine is a shaky scaffolding on which to build a conversion scene.
Despite this problem, Brookner’s novel largely rings true. Her depictions of the library, of the heroine’s chintz-laden flat, of a sterile and empty London cityscape, make her a veritable virtuoso of dinginess. The greedy glitter of the Frasers is ridiculed in scenes that resonate with the sardonic. Oddly enough, this book, which tells the reader how images lie, knows it must let those images shine forth and seduce first. Given the dingy backdrop, it is unsurprising that the Frasers, and perhaps even James, seem brighter with promise than they could ever really be. As the disenchantment with Camelot proceeds apace, however, all of the virtues that the dingy alternative would have boasted (if it could have) become clearer. The principal bearer of these unheralded virtues is probably the heroine’s socialist coworker, the crippled Olivia; Frances’ announcement to the disdainful and disbelieving Alix, on their final meeting, that she is spending Christmas with Olivia constitutes a declaration of solidarity, a taking of sides.
The novel in fact closes on the hated day of Christmas, Frances seated at her desk of desolation, writing. As it opened with images of madness, melancholy, and death, so it closes with images which, Frances reflects, “used to throng [her] mind” and which, in her new, unwanted knowledge, she seems “to welcome back.” These closing images are of a less fantastical but still depressing sort. She sees the various elderly figures in the library as they pass in mental review, and finally she sees herself. It is easy to read this penultimate passage before her concluding gesture (“I pick up my pen. I write.”) as the final triumph of experience over hope, as the narrator’s dawning awareness that it is her destiny to grow old and to follow Miss Morpeth to the solitary grave, but it is also the moment of recognition that allows these figures, including herself, to emerge in their own right from the obscure depths of dinginess. To “see,” then, is not only to visualize, to grasp the physical; it is to understand, to divine essence and motive. To see in that second sense requires powers not only of observation but also of logic and intuition, not only the instant snapshot but also the extended case history. Although the heroine desires to make her experiences into a “satirical novel,” “playing for laughs” and converting everything “somehow, into entertainment,” the author of Look at Me has done a bit better than that. She has produced a novel which, while very funny (even painfully so), has probed the surface of people’s outward aspects, both bright and dull, and has shown by the most appropriate of methods—the written word—how misleading appearances, visual images, can be.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 74
Cantwell, Mary. Review in The New York Times Book Review. LXXVIII (May 22, 1983), p. 14.
Duchene, Anne. Review in The Times Literary Supplement. March, 1983, p. 289.
Harper’s. CCLXVII, July, 1983, p. 75.
Listener. CIX, April 14, 1983, p. 32.
Los Angeles Times Book Review. May 3, 1983, p. 12.
Publishers Weekly. CCXXIII, March 4, 1983, p. 91.
Roston, Annie. Review in Harper’s Magazine. CCLXVII (July, 1983), p. 75.
Stephen, Kathy Field. Review in The Christian Science Monitor. October 19, 1983, p. 24.
Wiehe, Janet. Review in Library Journal. CVIII (April 1, 1983), p. 756.