Saturday, February 11, 2017

Review: A Closed Eye

[Number 11 in my chronological re-read of Brookner's 24 novels.]

Harriet Lytton, a recent widow in self-imposed exile in Switzerland, exhorts Lizzie Peckham, the daughter of her childhood friend, and ersatz friend of her own daughter Immy, to visit her in Switzerland. Why Harriet chooses Lizzie to help her mitigate her lonely life in Switzerland, and how Harriet got to this lonely state in the first place, is laid out as the timeline goes back to before Harriet was born.

The daughter of a vivacious, rather driven mother and a father left nervous by his experiences in World War II, Harriet is born with a prominent birthmark on her face. The birthmark not only informs how Harriet feels about her self, her relationships, and her place in the world, but it's also the motivation for Merle, Harriet's mother, to gently, but firmly push her into a marriage with a much older man. Harriet finds herself married to a man she doesn't really love and doesn't even really like much, but the birth of her perfect, blemishless, daughter Imogen ends up being the focus of her life . As Immy grows older, more independent, and frankly, brattier, Harriet begins to escape the tedium of her marriage by thinking about the possibility of an affair with Jack Peckham. The husband of her childhood friend Tessa, Jack is a TV news correspondent who represents all the danger, and excitement, and passion missing from Harriet's life.

In the meantime, the relationship between Harriet's Immy and Tessa's daughter Lizzie is never what Harriet thought it should be, but Harriet never figures this out. She is blind to how much the two girls dislike each other. Having been raised as the perfect child--the one who redeems Harriet's life, Immy ends up acting like someone who was treated as perfect. She becomes insufferable and spoiled. Lizzie on the other hand becomes bookish and quiet and old beyond her years. In a way Harriet and Tessa ended up with the wrong children and all may have benefited from a parent swap. Interestingly, re-reading Brookner's novels chronologically as I am, this is not the first time we see this notion of children born to the wrong parents in her work. The two sets of parents in Latecomers also each have have an only child who appears to be better suited to the other couple. It makes me wonder if Brookner felt she had been born into the wrong family.

And then, rather oddly for Brookner, there are a few spoilers. Without giving these spoilers away, one event that shapes the story fairly early on, and thus, isn't so much of a spoiler, is that Tessa dies young leaving Lizzie adrift and Jack, the subject of Harriet's seduction fantasies. But then the spoiler of spoilers happens that cements Harriet's future. Don't get me wrong, for those of you used to plot, this spoiler won't shock you much when you come across it, but for those who have read a lot of Brookner, it's pretty surprising.

The net result is a life of low expectations that are nevertheless unmet. To paraphrase Gertrude Stein, those of you who don't mind that won't mind that.

The jacket flap from my U.S. edition referred to the novel as a story of three generations of women, but I really think it is more accurately thought of as Harriet's story. Her mother Merle is fairly well fleshed out, but Immy remains pretty opaque even when we know is going on in her life. And all that we do learn about Merle and Immy is not really independent of their association with their daughter/mother. Brookner created a literary work that revolves around Harriet but Harriet's "real" life most certainly does not revolve around her.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Review: Brief Lives

[Number 10 in my chronological re-read of Brookner's 24 novels.]

In the past I've accused myself of reducing Brookner's novels to just being about lonely, depressed people waiting to die. Re-reading the first nine of her novels has given me abundant proof that there is much more going on than that.

And then in Brief Lives, there's this:
Certain evenings I sat in the sitting-room without bothering to put on the lights, looking out at that street lamp.
That would by Fay. A woman in her early 60s, once a regular singer on the BBC, widowed, alone, and thinking that there really isn't much left for her but watching the timer on life run out. These are the Brookner characteristics I most remember from reading her 24 novels the first time. I alternate between taking comfort in this kind of character and deeply fearing her. Or more accurately, I fear becoming her.

Fay doesn't have much in the way of a social life. There's Millie her old flatmate and singing colleague at the BBC, but she lives in the country now and Fay doesn't see her much. Her husband's cousin and his wife occasionally invite her to dinner where she meets a man. But he is emotionally unavailable and keeps her as much at arm's length as he does seem to enjoy spending time with her. That is until she has a human emotion, at which point he fades quickly from her life.

For the most part though, Fay's life is consumed by Julia, a former actress whose husband Charlie was a business associate of her husband Owen. Julia is like a low-rent Norma Desmond character minus the glamour.
She lived on omelettes and whisky, maintaining that she liked neither, and appeared none the worse for it.
Julia surrounds herself with women who are devoted to her. I would call them sycophants, but that is too uncharitable. There's Pearl, her former dresser, and Maureen, a small town newspaper columnist who interviews her and ends up becoming a regular fixture in Julia's life. Both are essentially care givers and companions and never considered by Julia to be equals or even friends.

Fay's relationship with Julia is also unequal and it's complicated. With no real ties to Julia, Fay still feels compelled to ensure that the ungrateful Julia is okay which often means enduring Julia's deprecating, mean-spirited banter. Fay finds it impossible to break free from Julia and allows her to get under her skin. Julia manages to somehow poison whatever drive and determination Fay has for her own future happiness.

Even after Julia is out of her life, Fay is unable to see anything in her future but death. For those of us who look forward to retirement sometime in our 60s, Fay's outlook is a puzzle. I don't think it was Brookner's intention to depict someone who is clinically depressed, but it is hard to understand Fay's outlook. As she contemplates her life after the death of her husband--who she didn't really like--she sells their home contemplates moving into a new flat.
I could see myself in Drayton Gardens, going out with my basket on wheels, tempting my own appetite, keeping up appearances, and doing no harm, not even to myself. Lonely? Yes, I should be lonely, but in time I should see that this was to my advantage. I should be training myself for old age, which takes a certain amount of training; better to start as I meant to go on.
I used to worry about being this person before I met my husband. I was 33 and had come to terms with being mate-less for the balance of my life. Now, 14 years later, with a very happy married life, but no kids, I find myself thinking about a future, albeit a somewhat distant one, where the only people in my life are the ones I pay to take care of me. This horrifies me to my core. I've got 30 years to make some friends who aren't long distance. Although by Fay's standards I only have about 15 years to make some meaningful connections. Yikes.

As with all of Brookner's novels the prose is brilliant and precise. Unless you are looking for a big downer, I wouldn't recommend this for your first Brookner experience (try Lewis Percy). But if you do like a bit of a wallow, Brief Lives will not disappoint.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Review: Lewis Percy

[Number 9 in my chronological re-read of all of Brookner's 24 novels.]

When people ask me where they should start with Brookner, I never know quite what to tell them. Part of the problem is that after having read all 24 or them over the course of about a decade, I didn't really remember enough detail about any of them to really provide a recommendation. I would often default to Hotel du Lac merely because it was her best known and had won the Booker Prize.

Now that I am nine books into my re-reading of all of Brookner's novels I can say I am much more aware of the differences in the stories and much more appreciative of the variety and depth of her output. And perhaps no more so than with Lewis Percy. And I think, out of her first nine novels, Lewis Percy is a fantastic place to start. Slightly more plot driven than her other novels and with a much younger protagonist.

Our eponymous hero is a 20-something scholar working on his doctoral thesis in Paris. Not long after Lewis returns to London from his year in France, his mother dies and he finds himself a bit untethered. Perhaps having read too much of his mother's kind of fiction he comes up with a romantic, heroic, and ultimately misguided, notion that he is going to transform Patricia "Tissy" Harper, a young, virginal, agoraphobic librarian, into something much greater by marrying her. I don't have to tell you that things don't really work out that way.

Acting the part of the perfect Edwardian wife--albeit in the 1960s--Tissy achieves an outward transformation with updated clothes and hair befitting her age and the era, but it doesn't translate much beyond that. Not necessarily aware of the paternalistic idiocy of his plan Lewis senses the failure of his marriage but figures he has made his bed and needs to be faithful. Despite falling in love with Emmy, his gay best friend's actress sister, he repels her advances only to have Tissy believe he was unfaithful. She flees back to her mother's house, Lewis tries to be a responsible absent father, and no one is happy. Eventually Tissy finds her emotional feet, Emmy and Lewis realize they can't be together, and Lewis gets a generous academic job offer in the U.S.

And that, my friends, is a lot of action for a Brookner novel. Although her characters are fabulously old fashioned, I also loved Brookner taking on younger characters and nodding to the swinging 60s. In Lewis Percy the reader gets the opportunity to experience a hopeful ending while getting lashings of introspective, complacent, ennui typical of Brookner's characters. This could be the gateway drug of Brookner novels.

(On a completely unrelated note and apropos of nothing, I also loved the advent of the computer at the library where Lewis worked for years on an index (of what I don't recall). Lewis is unsure if he wants to stick around to learn the new technology. In trying to convince Lewis to embrace the future and the future of the index, his boss makes this fabulous statement:
'But my dear fellow!' exclaimed Goldsborough. 'This will be the index's finest hour!'
As with Pym's No Fond Return of Love, I do love an index in a novel.)

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

A Personal Tribute to Anita Brookner

The following personal tribute to Anita Brookner was written by blogger A Super Dilettante. Reposted with permission.

"Anita Brookner: of all the younger generation known to me, the rarest in quality both as friend and writer." Rosamond Lehmann
(Image credit: Rosamond Lehmann's Album, Chatto & Windus, 1987)
When I heard the news that the writer, Anita Brookner has died, on the wireless this morning, I felt as though I had lost the greatest teacher in my life. Although the majority of people in the literary world know her as a writer, Anita Brookner first came into my life as an art historian. The first book I read by her is a book of her art historical essays and reviews called Soundings published in 1997. This book had the profoundest effect on me when I was studying art history.

Her marvellous style, penetrating vision and her intelligent interpretation of the French paintings by Corot and Courbet made me realise that a well-written essay can be every bit as beautiful as the poetry or fiction. It was Anita Brookner, an exceptional scholar from London's Courtauld Institute, whom I greatly admired as an exemplar and a role model during my student days. She lived in France for a number of years. During that time, she wrote very insightful short essays and reviews of the exhibitions that made a regular appearance in the prestigious art magazine called The Burlington Magazine.

She later admitted in her rare radio interview, which must be her last interview, The Reunion: The Courtauld Institute, with Sue MacGregor (available to listen online) that the most meaningful period of her life was at the Courtauld Institute where she was trained and later appointed as a teaching fellow by then-Director, Anthony Blunt. One of her students at Courtauld (the artist, John McLean) later wrote about her: "She gave very elegant lectures. I had never seen anyone so metropolitan and poised."

It was her essays and reviews along with the writings of Benedict Nicolson, the elder son of Harold Nicolson and Vita Sackville-West that inspired me to become an art historian. I would devour every word they wrote for The Burlington Magazine at the university's library.

Anita Brookner came into my life as a novelist was much later, during the darkest days, after I left the university when I felt my entire life was drifting in the sea of desolation. It was her novels that spoke to me and comforted (they still do) me. Through her writings, I found my mentor because I looked up to her as a survival from a vanished civilisation. Her extraordinary ability to write the most elegant prose makes most contemporary writing seem crude and sloppy. She was most perspective and insightful as a writer. Here is how she described an incompatible relationship in her book, The Misalliance: "Like many rich men, he thought in anecdotes. Like many simple women, she thought in terms of biography." No one else would have written like that. Her subjects are about narratives of failures (after all, isn't literature all about failure?), lonely characters and exiles leading what she called "the unlived life". She wrote in her 1984 Booker Prize winning novel, Hotel du Lac:
"In real life, it is the hare who wins. Every time. Look around you. And in any case it is my contention that Aesop was writing for the tortoise market. Hares have no time to read. They are too busy winning the game."
Some literary critics were rather harsh and unfair in their judgment when they assess her works and complain that she repeatedly wrote the same kind of story. But then, they seem to forget the words of Tolstoy, one of the greatest writers of all time, when he said: "All great literature is one of two stories; a man goes on a journey or a stranger come to town." You will find that Anita Brookner engaged in both aspects brilliantly and passionately in her novels.
Every sentence she wrote is a sheer beauty, made in the elegiac tone, full of subtle evocations of vanished ways of life. All these things made a powerful impression on me. But what makes me so sad is that her death was not even mentioned in the national 6 o’clock news. There were no headlines. Apart from the online social media and the tributes paid by her contemporaries and famous writers, there is very little statement about her death in today's press cover and news bulletin.

I thought that being an infinitely reticent woman, she would probably have preferred this quiet and dignified way of leaving this world. This evening, I read one of the most beautiful paragraphs from her novel, Look At Me. My voice slightly choked with emotion but I read it out loud as a mark of respect to her while I sat on my favourite reading chair and who knows she may even be listening….

I shall leave you with her words:
 "It was then that I saw the business of writing for what it truly was and is to me. It is your penance for not being lucky. It is an attempt to reach others and to make them love you. It is your instinctive protest, when you find you have no voice at the world's tribunals, and that no one will speak for you. I would give my entire output of words, past, present and to come, in exchange for easier access to the world, for permission to state "I hurt" or "I hate" or "I want". Or indeed, "Look at me". And I do not go back on this. For once a thing is known it can never be unknown. It can only be forgotten. And writing is the enemy of forgetfulness, or thoughtlessness. For the writer there is no oblivion. Only endless memory."

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Remembering Anita Brookner

Based on the traffic stats for this blog, the passing of Anita Brookner has renewed interest in her and her work. It might be helpful for an introduction for newcomers to this site.

In 2011, to celebrate Brookner's birthday and her 30th year publishing novels, we created International Anita Brookner Day. At the time we had lots of readers and bloggers reading and writing about Brookner and her novels. The result was lots of first-time Brookner readers and lots of blogger book reviews. Follow the links below to find out more.

1. An index of blogger reviews of Brookner's novels. If you have a review of your own that you would like to submit to be included in the index, I would be delighted to add it here, both as a blog post and as a link in the index. Shoot me an email at hogglestock [at] outlook [dot] com.

2. An index to London place names in Brookner's fiction. If you have ever read any of Brookner's novels, you know that London plays a prominent role, especially as her characters love to walk. As I re-read all of Brookner's 24 novels and 1 novella in chronological order, I have been keeping a list of all the London place names I come across. So far I have indexed the first 8 and am about to start on number 9, Lewis Percy.

3. A chance encounter with Brookner at Marks and Spencer. Writer Sophie Smith gave us a firsthand account of her running into Brookner while out shopping. Compared to other authors, there is relatively little known about Brookner's personal life. We did hear a bit of gossip back in 2011 that she was aware of IABD and had contemplated acknowledging it but didn't like the fact that we had appropriated her birthday for our celebration. A very private woman indeed.

Monday, March 14, 2016

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Review: Latecomers

[Number 8 in my chronological re-read of all of Brookner's 24 novels.]

In Latecomers, Anita Brookner strays away from her more typical solitary protagonist and gives us an ensemble cast. There are life-long friends and business partners Hartmann and Fibich, their wives Yvette and Christine (respectively), and their children Marianne and Toto (respectively). The emotional center of the book, and what there is of a plot, definitely revolve around Hartmann and Fibich. The chronology starts with them. Thrown together as youths when refugee Fibich comes to live with Hartmann and his aunt, the two become like brothers, go into business together, and end up living in the same apartment building for all their adult lives. In the meantime both acquire wives and one child each.

Despite this symmetry, it's clear Hartmann is the one in charge. It's his aunt who raises them. He is the first to get married. The one to find and buy a flat and then eventually grab one in the same building for Fibich and his wife. And the one who is, or at least appears to be, the steadier of the two. More certain of himself, more confident in business, love, and family, and less troubled by his past. Their wives reinforce the power dynamic. Hartmann's wife Yvette is one of those people who demands attention. Pretty, elegantly put together, coquettish, and seemingly bent on becoming the boss' wife. Paying only enough attention to her duties at Hartmann and Fibich's office to keep her job long enough to hook and marry Hartmann. I don't think she necessarily set out to seduce him but her flirtatious nature and desire to be set up in a life, far from the world of her mother's reduced circumstances, made it a bit inevitable.

Christine on the other hand is the hired help in Hartmann's aunt's house--although her implied intellect and class status, if not her actual duties, make her feel more like a ladies' companion than a maid. When she helps Fibich nurse the aunt through her final illness, the two become close and eventually marry and move into the flat Hartmann has found for them in his building.

And then the children happen. Marianne seems a bit quieter, less sure of herself, and less glamorous than Hartmann and Yvette. And Toto is confident to the point of arrogance which makes him feel decidedly different than Fibich and Christine.

In some ways I expected Latecomers to have a little more to say about the lives of the two children and the contrast with their respective parents. Instead the novel has much more to do with Fibich trying to make sense of his past. He becomes increasingly discomfited by all that he can't remember of his short childhood in Germany and the parents who were lost to him at the hands of the Nazis. Hartmann's family was similarly impacted but with much less effect on Hartmann's life.

The fascinating thing about the way Brookner writes about the impacts of Nazism on Hartmann and Fibich is that she never mentions the Nazis or what they did. I think the only explicit mention is the blurb written by her publisher on the jacket flap. In the novel itself it is only hinted at in the most oblique ways. Not only are details or proper names never mentioned, but even the generic word atrocity would seem out of place.  Brookner tends to do that--she will write in great detail about emotions, or small details, but the outside world, the one where news and history happen, never really comes up. To me, this is never a problem. Brookner has created a world that is less of an ahistorical bubble than it is a delivery system for deep personal feeling.