Look at Me
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...
(The entire section is 2510 words.)