(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 20)

When Anita Brookner began her career, she wrote about lonely young women whose romantic dreams could not be satisfied. Brookner’s first two novels were told in the third person; she used limited omniscience to enable readers to live in the heroines’ minds. Her third novel, Look at Me(1983), was told in the first person, bringing the reader even closer to its heroine’s thoughts and feelings.

In what could be called her breakthrough novel, Hotel du Lac (1984), Brookner expanded her theme. Not only is her heroine, Edith Hope, a disappointed romantic but she also writes romance novels. Through Edith, Brookner commented on how fiction feeds romantic hopes. The novel’s point of view is also more complicated. Although it is told mainly in the third person, Edith is continually writing letters (but not sending them), thus giving the reader many pages of first-person commentary.

In these novels, other motifs emerge. Brookner’s heroines often seem unable to protect themselves in the dog-eat-dog world. They find it hard to act aggressively, and when they do act, the results are often hilariously disappointing. These women are not simply inept. In some profound way they do not fit into English life, as if they were exiles. This sense is reinforced by the range of Brookner’s European references: Some heroines have non-English parents; one teaches French literature.

As Brookner’s career unfolded, her heroines got older. They are disappointed in a variety of new ways, and they are often even more passive. Brookner makes the theme of exile more clear; many of her characters and their families, explicitly shown to be from Central Europe, are probably Jews.

Men in Brookner’s earliest novels are usually charming cads, the objects of romantic desire and the main cause of the heroines’ disappointments. As Brookner grew as a novelist, she began to show men’s problems and to tell stories from a man’s point of view. The central characters ofLatecomers (1988), Lewis Percy (1989), and A Private View (1994) are men. Altered States (1996) is told by a man in the first person. Although many authors do not do well telling stories in the mind of a member of the opposite sex, most critics find Brookner’s performance credible and sympathetic.

Making Things Better (published in England as The Next Big Thing) is the culmination of many of these aspects of Brookner’s work. The central character is a man. Julius Herz is an exile, a Jew who got out of Germany with his family before World War II. He has vivid adolescent memories of pleasant middle-class life in prewar Berlin. Brookner has seldom given so clear a sense of the life of Jews under Adolf Hitler’s regime. She tells Herz’s story in the third person, limiting what is revealed to his thoughts and actions when Julius is present.

The story line of Making Things Better is even less eventful than that of most Brookner novels. Julius Herz lives in a modest apartment in central London. His days consist of shopping and sitting on a park bench. He sometimes goes to The National Gallery; he sometimes has dinner with his lawyer or lunch with his ex-wife. A nice-looking professional woman moves into the apartment below his. He become attracted to her but is rebuffed. He gets a letter from his cousin, and they make plans to meet in Switzerland. He prepares to sublet his apartment to the young woman’s boyfriend. He leaves for Switzerland. As usual in Brookner’s work, the London background is specific: The streets, parks, and restaurants she mentions are real.

The plot, however, is much more complicated. Readers live in Julius’s mind and slowly learn of his past and uncover his vision. Each chapter begins with some small advance in the story but then begins to weave in and out of his memories and opinions. This weaving is artful. Julius returns to the same events and the same ideas, but Brookner adds to these events and ideas bit by bit so that a reader’s understanding deepens by increments. Brookner may sometimes be self-indulgent; readers are told the same things too often. One critic has remarked that her style here is not so succinct as usual.

Julius has a lot in common with other Brookner characters: He, too, is a disappointed romantic. His disappointments begin early. In Berlin, his older brother Freddy was a child prodigy violinist and his mother’s favorite. His mother’s sister married a Protestant and thus could live in a more free and modern way; when Julius visited his aunt’s house he was looked down upon. Another, even more painful disappointment waited for him there, in the person of his slightly older cousin, the adorable and desirable Fanny. The adolescent Julius fell irrevocably in love with her, but she could not have cared less.


(The entire section is 1978 words.)