Sunday, August 9, 2020

Undue Influence


[I’m up to number 19 in my chronological re-read of all of Anita Brookner’s 24 novels.]

In her 19th novel, published in 1999, Brookner’s characters are starting to feel like they might actually have inhabited the year in which they were written. Her mention of the Eurostar which had only begun operations about five years earlier seems like a fantastically contemporary reference for Brookner. (In her 18th novel, Falling Slowly published the previous year, there is a journey to France that seems likely to have been made on Eurostar, but one has to be a bit of a transportation nerd with a touch of OCD to even read that much between the lines.) But it isn’t just one mention of Eurostar that makes this Brookner novel seem almost fresh. Her protagonist in Undue Influence is a youngish woman, Claire Pitt, who clearly hasn’t figured out where she is headed in life.

Somewhat recently orphaned by the death of her mother, Claire is working in the basement of a used bookshop where she is transcribing the writings of St. John Collier, the late father of the Misses Colliers who run the bookshop they inherited from him. As the transcription work winds down she becomes a default employee when Muriel Collier needs to stay at home to take care of her sister Hester. The two of them have never married and in their own way never really matured. Muriel, now in her 80s, believes their father drew them into the business as a way to keep them unmarried and close at hand.

It seems like Claire might suffer a similar outcome. Stunted in her own emotional development by her father’s invalidism after a series of strokes beginning when she was 10, Claire abhors any sign of weakness in men that might remind her of him. She has just one friend, another young woman Caroline, who still goes by Wiggy, no doubt a nickname from school days, who is content being the mistress of a married man. Claire and Wiggy meet for dinner once a week, sharing confidences that never go too deep, and, while not explicitly stated, feel like a relic of girlhood. Her avoidance of her financial standing in the months (years?) after her mother’s death and her assumption, based on nothing but conjecture, that she will be hired by the owner’s of the new shop, suggest someone who is less than ready to face the adult world.

But Claire’s stunted development is no more apparent than in the way she spins endless stories in her head about the people she observes. From imagining that a random man in a cafe is the son of her upstairs neighbor to imagining backstories for just about everybody she becomes acquainted with. And these backstories aren’t the product of a burgeoning writer, they never get written down. They don’t even seem to be consciously created. They just seem to be the day dreams of a child, someone who doesn’t have anything more pressing or tangible to fill up her mind.

Claire’s propensity for daydreaming helps explain how 40-something, widower-in-waiting, Martin Gibson becomes the target of her attention. It allows her to insinuate herself into his life, get him into her bed, and eventually focus on him as her life’s obsession. Keep in mind that all of this is through the Brookner lens so none of it is as dramatic as that sounds. In fact, it is so typically subtle, that I sometimes had to go back a few paragraphs just to see if what I thought happened had really happened.

Even realizing that she has exerted undue influence on Martin and created an imagined  trajectory for their relationship that will likely never come to be isn’t enough to shake her loose from those imaginings. She sabotages what little there is between them, realizing she is pushing him away, but is unable to either stop herself or even realize the likely outcome of her behavior. She doesn’t fully take on board that he is distancing himself, but the reality of it seems to be creeping into the fringes of her subconscious as she becomes aware of a new, but still unexplained condition.

The proof of this was my new inability to speculate. This had always been such a resource, an endowment, even a gift, that its disappearance, however temporary, however ephemeral…left me desolate.

It isn’t until she realizes that Martin has moved on from their superficial connection–relationship really is too strong a word–that the scales finally fall from her eyes. Up to that point she had been trying to convince herself that she was moving on. But even as she planned to go abroad to some unknown destination, she seemed to be planning it all either as a means of distraction, or as something she could return from. A bit of evidence of a life, or maybe as proof independence, that she could point to at some future time when renewing her pursuit of Martin. But with the inescapable truth finally in front of her, all of her denial slips away. All of the non-existent emotional ties she had felt were dissolved. After multiple subconscious sputters and false starts, Claire’s adult future is finally clear. She doesn’t really know what the future is, but she knows what it isn’t. It isn’t Martin, it probably isn’t the bookshop, and it definitely isn’t some castle in the sky with no basis in reality. This could possibly sound bleak, but it is actually one of the more optimistic endings in the Brookner canon. Her life is wide open with nothing to hold her back

When the heat in my face and throat subsided and I could bear to get up from my chair, I walked to the window and looked out. I must have stood there for some time, because when I turned around the room was in darkness. I had no conscious thoughts. All I knew was that now, as never before, I should find it easy to leave.

[Crossposted at Hogglestock

Wednesday, July 29, 2020

Review: Falling Slowly

[I’m up to number 18 in my chronological re-read of all of Anita Brookner’s 24 novels.]

If you said “falling slowly” to me I would be inclined to think of someone falling in love. In Falling Slowly we do indeed see Miriam Sharpe fall in love, not once, but twice (maybe), but I’m no so sure it was all that slowly and I’m even less sure the title refers to falling in love. I’m more inclined to believe it’s about falling into a deep, comfortable, numbing, rut that leads to nowhere but death. Excited? By all means read on.

As I have worked my way through re-reading of Brookner’s novels, I have found more going on in her novels than I perceived the first time. And I have gotten away from thinking of her output as a monolith of quietly and comfortably tragic people just waiting to die. But then along comes Falling Slowly, a poster child for the Brooknerian stereotype. Those who don’t know my love for Brookner, might think this declaration is tantamount to criticism. Far from of it. I love every little thing about the way Brookner dives deep into exploring loneliness and resignation making them feel like cozy, warm, blankets. Sure, blankets that will slowly snuff the life right out of you, but cozy nonetheless.

At its heart, Falling Slowly seems to be about Miriam finding out what being in love really feels like. Unlike other relationships in her life (like her short-lived marriage) there isn’t anything safe or sure about being in love. Miriam falls in love with Simon, but it seemed kind of fast to me. And after that she appears to fall in love with Tom more slowly, but does she? And is that what all of this is about anyway? No, as I mentioned earlier, I think Falling Slowly is about falling slowly into acceptance of one’s fate. As is typical with Brookner, there seem to be many opportunities for her characters to alter their fates, but as I get older I see more and more how fate is not something we can see at close range. It creeps up on us even when we think we might be avoiding it. It’s like the proverbial (and apocryphal) frog calmly getting boiled to death. We see it with Miriam’s mother who accepts her fate once she is moved into a nursing home. We see it in Beatrice who accepts her slide into death after she stops performing professionally. We see it in Max Gruber who seeks to slide into his fate in a way that would be amenable to his wishes, but in the end ends up sliding into a country apart from the one he imagined. And of course we see it in Miriam herself.

After a trip short trip to Paris that was cut even shorter than expected (this seems to happen a lot in Brookner, trips to Paris to work out some sort of emotional cobweb are almost always cut short) Miriam’s “rebirth” is astonishing in its moribundity (this needs to be a word):

At Waterloo, her usual neutral smile in place, the usual courtesies offered and accepted, the usual immaculate appearance adjusted, she took her first steps into a world in which she perceived the possibility of being denied essential information, a world in which silence was commonplace, and absence a forgone conclusion.

Have you ever felt that way after a mini-break? And this is with almost 90 pages to go.

I came across one line that made me do a bit of a double take. Almost like an alien popping out very briefly from Brookner’s immaculate, polite mind only to retreat as quickly as it appeared. After spying her love object in a restaurant with another woman Miriam describes her:

The girl, meek, her eyes cast down, like a heifer, was beautiful.

For those who don’t need to be convinced to pick up a Brookner but might want to differentiate between her two dozen novels, I suppose I could point out that Miriam is a translator of French books who spends her work day at the London Library. And central to the story is her sister Beatrice who is/was a classical piano accompanist. Not to mention a few fabulous descriptions of paintings, masterfully done by art historian Brookner. So if that is your bag, then this is your bag.

[Cross posted at Hogglestock.]

Saturday, May 18, 2019

Review: Visitors

[I'm up to number 17 in my chronological re-read of all of Anita Brookner's 24 novels.]

There is something telling about the fact that the main character in Visitors, Dorothea May, is called Mrs May by the narrator. The other characters don't have titles and they don't call her Mrs May, but Brookner is clearly making a point. Mrs May is a widow and her social sphere mainly revolves around her husband's cousins Kitty and Molly and their husbands. Indeed her place in the world seems to be entirely entangled in theirs. She doesn't necessarily want to be drawn into their world and perhaps keeps up the relationships more out of a sense of duty than any real positive desire. She has one friend from her single days, but she lives out of London and I don't think the two ever see each other over the course of the story. Even Mrs May's solicitor and doctor  are leftovers from her husband.

Stangers, introduced to her for the first time, assumed that she had never married, thinking her self-sufficiency no more than the sum of others' indifference. That was their business; hers was to give no sign of anything out of order. This she succeeded in doing. Unbeknown to herself, she was considered slightly forbidding. She had few friends now, but that, she thought, spared her the pain of losing them.

Into this world drops Ann, Kitty's granddaughter from America, who shows up with her monk-like fiance and their (not outwardly) gay friend Steve. Ann stays with Kitty and her husband Austin while Kitty tries to pull out all of the stops to keep Ann's wedding from becoming a makeshift affair. Ann's macrobiotic fiance David ends up staying with Molly and her husband Harold, the latter of which becomes rather enchanted by David's over-earnest, rather un-English variety of Christian belief. And their friend Steve ends up staying on the other side of London with Mrs May, whose life may be empty but not so empty that she wants a visitor around. In fact from the start of his stay, Mrs May makes it pretty clear that he is only welcome to stay in his room and occasionally other parts of the flat when he is explicitly invited for a meal. If this were a different kind of book, Steve would find his way into Mrs May's heart and it would transform the rest of her life. And certainly if Hollywood got its mitts on the film rights that is exactly what this would turn into. But this isn't a different kind of novel and, based on the gloriously staid film version of Hotel du Lac, it seems unlikely that there is a director out there waiting to wreak havoc on Brookner's perfect vision. At least I hope not.

There are subplots that revolve around Gerald, the estranged father and son of Ann and Kitty, as well as Ann and David's future, and even to a certain extent, a thought or two about Steve's prospects. But none of this seems to be the point. It's all background to Mrs May's attempts to be left alone. There are glimmers here and there that suggest Mrs May might actually be enjoying the company of her visitor, but they are short-lived, beaten out by her focus on solitude. It is only after all the action of the honeymoon is over and the three young people have gone off to France that Mrs May starts to think that having someone around might not be such a bad thing after all. It's when she is alone again that she realizes that as much as she disliked Steve--and why? there is never any clue as to why he was so unlikable to her--he seemed to have the effect of forcing her to live in the present. In spite of this or perhaps because of it, she did everything she could to make sure that Steve moved on after the wedding. Did she really dislike Steve or was she simply unable to deal with the possibility he represented that the solitude she thought she cherished was not providing her with the life she wanted.

In the end it's not all for nothing. Steve, and the young in general, may not have been the answer for Mrs May, but he does seemed to have provided her with a revelatory moment that promises to alter the trajectory of her final years. She realizes after he is gone that something had shifted.

She knew, quite calmly, that her days were empty, as the flat, which she now entered, was empty, with an emptiness she had not quite anticipated. She had thought to enjoy her solitude, but in fact she found herself listening for another's presence, however fleeting, however indifferent. She would have welcomed a stranger, for now she knew that this was possible.

If the novel had ended there, her future would have seemed pretty bleak. She had her chance and missed it. But in the short, final two chapters she appears to have found a way forward that would make the most of what she had. A way that has her looking at Henry's relatives less like an obligation and more like an opportunity. Certainly doesn't seem like like much, but it just may be enough.

Sunday, April 21, 2019

Review: A Start in Life

[This review of A Start in Life (The Debut) is from The Mookse and the Gripes.]
About ten years ago I read Anita Brookner’s Booker Prize-winning novel Hotel du Lac. I remember very little about it now, though I think I was rather positive. However, I didn’t feel any compulsion to read more of her work. Over the last year or so, though, I’ve seen more and more of my trusted book-reading friends proclaiming that she is among their favorites, that they cannot get enough, that if you’ve only read Hotel du Lac you really don’t know how great she is. Okay, I finally said, I’ll give her a go (it helped that Penguin UK had just released a large batch of her books in attractive new editions). I started at the beginning, her 1981 novel A Start in Life, and it is among the best debuts I have ever read. It is among the best books I’ve read. I loved it unconditionally. I have nothing bad to say about it whatsoever. I do plan on highlighting some of its strengths and delights in this post, but if you’re looking for anything other than praise for Brookner’s debut you will come up empty here.
Let’s start with the opening line:
Dr. Weiss, at forty, knew that her life had been ruined by literature.
Is there any way for readers like us to resist such an opener? It’s bold and wonderful. I’m glad to say that the book just keeps getting better from there.
Our protagonist is Ruth Weiss. The story begins when she is forty and trying to reconcile all of the unanticipated — even unwanted — occurrences that led her to where she is in life. As a child, the “moral universe” was presented in the books she loved: “For virtue would surely triumph, patience would surely be rewarded.” As a child, she couldn’t imagine it being any different, and she feels that she was blinded to some greater truth:
So eager was she to join this upward movement towards the light that she hardly noticed that her home resembled the ones she was reading about: a superficial veil of amusement over a deep well of disappointment.
Most of the novel concerns her upbringing in London and her attempt to become independent in Paris. Holding her back are her fully realized parents, George and Helen. We learn about what they wanted in life, as well, and understand how they, closer to the end than Ruth, have had to delude themselves that they’d missed the boat. George had a job he didn’t want and eventually found himself in a marriage he’d rather avoid, instead working to pass a few evening hours in a mirage of marital bliss in another woman’s home. For her part, Helen had been a stage star but finds herself bed-ridden when she is no longer considered for roles.
George and Ruth have retreated from the stresses of trying to make something work in their life. Unfortunately, they feel they can now rely heavily on their daughter, threatening to erode her life as well.
In the country of the old and sick there are environmental hazards. Cautious days. Early nights. A silent, ageing life in which the anxiety of the invalid overrides the vitality of the untouched.
Ruth is not the type of woman who will confidently take the world by storm, either. She is not particularly attractive to the men she knows, and she certainly hasn’t learned much from her parents, who don’t really understand their strange daughter. She’s of that temperament that feels disappointment keenly and still manages to say, “I’m very lucky, really.”
But Ruth does feel a desire to spread her wings, to have, well, a start, though deferred, in life.
In her blue dress, in which she had not taken Paris by storm, and her wool coat, Ruth felt shabby and obedient. The girl wore trousers and a pullover, the man a well-cut suit of tweed. A great desire for change came over Ruth and a great uncertainty as to how this might be brought about. For she knew, obscurely, that she had capacities as yet untried but that they might be for ever walled up unless her circumstances changed. Love, she supposed, might do it, but there was no one with whom she might fall in love.
A Start in Life is an intelligent exploration of lives eroding from circumstance, and the stories folks tell themselves to get by. The characters are delightful and frustrating and painfully real. I’m ready for more Brookner.

Review: Altered States

[I'm up to number 16 in my chronological re-read of all of Anita Brookner's 24 novels.]

As I sat down to write this review this morning I found I needed to go over the second chapter pretty closely because I was getting some of the names and relationships a little bit confused. As I wrote who was who on the back of an envelope, it struck me as a bit Trollopian. I'm currently re-reading Dr. Thorne and Brookner's relationship matrix in Altered States began to make me think of Trollope's intricate social and familial networks. Brookner's hero Alan's mother Alice was the second wife of the father of her friends Sybil and Marjorie. Sybil and her husband Bertram have a daughter Sarah who is not just Alan's obsession but also the obsession of Jenny the childless Polish wife of Sarah's uncle (and Bertram's brother) Humphrey.

Got that?  Of course Trollope would have littered it with a few sirs and ladies but the feeling was the same. The fact that Brookner has Alice re-reading The Claverings and quoting Lady Mason from Orley Farm kind of makes the connection feel complete.

In some ways it isn't all that important to really remember who any of the characters are since the plot distills rather simply down to Alan's obsession with Sarah. Even the life and untimely death (not a spoiler) of his wife Angela is secondary to the presence, and absence, of Sarah. My oversimplification is meant to summarize rather than discount the fine detail that Brookner puts into the cast of characters and how they interact with and impact each other. In fact, all the other relationships seemed much more compelling than anything Sarah was involved in. Perhaps that is because I can get a little bored with unrequited love, but as I sit now thinking of it, it seems as if the main event--Alan's fixation on Sarah--is really secondary to the rest of his life, at least as the reader sees it. No doubt the rest of the cast is secondary in Alan's mind, but surely, it could be no accident that those are the people and relationships that Brookner really explores. Sarah spends most of the book offstage and never makes much of an impact when she is on the scene. 

Alan's ill-fated marriage to Angela, one of Sarah's acquaintances, is one of those perfect Brooknerian sequences in which someone finds themselves married without really knowing how or why. Angela certainly trains her sights on Alan until he finds himself somehow engaged and then married. It's possible he gets married to forget about Sarah, but it seems more likely that she simply wore him down. As the happy couple head off into their life together Alan seems to want to be alone.
I longed for nothing but a cup of good strong tea, preferably drunk in complete silence. Angela, I knew, would sit up half the night dispatching pieces of wedding cake, the very cake that was giving me such unaccustomed indigestion. I wondered if there were any precedent for a bridegroom wanting to spend his wedding night on his own.
The fact that this was more or less the high point of their marriage says quite a bit. But, as I alluded to, Altered States really isn't about Alan's marriage. There is a matrimonial tragedy that Alan has to live with the rest of his life, but stronger than any remorse or regret is an underlying sense of I wonder where Sarah is.

Sunday, March 24, 2019

Review: Incidents in the Rue Laugier

[I'm up to number 15 in  my chronological re-read of all of Anita Brookner's 24 novels.]

I have often mused about Anita Brookner's personal life. Partly because she kept it largely out of the public gaze while she was alive and partly because it's hard to read her output and not jump to conclusions about her private life and personality. This is a sloppy approach to understanding a novel for sure, and I have done it less and less as I make my way through these re-reads of her novels, finding far more depth and breadth in her characters than I did the first time through. But, I must admit, as I read Incidents in the Rue Laugier, I found myself sliding back into wondering about how dire and depressing Brookner's life must have been to have written these characters and this story.

On the surface Maud Harrison (née Gonthier) is someone completely stuck in a reality defined by others. Her mother, her lover, her husband, and her in-laws. At no point does Maud seem to have any agency. At an early age her fate seems sealed by situations seemingly out of her control. As I silently urged her to find her feet I began to think again about how this must be a reflection of Brookner's life. But as Maud lamented her lack of independence and freedom, it occurred to me that Anita Brookner was not one of her characters, indeed she was the antithesis of her characters. Her life, at least from the outside, was nothing but an exercise in independence and freedom. She made significant inroads in the male bastion of her academic career, she upturned her academic life at age 50 to become a prolific novelist, and, as far as the public can see, was never encumbered by romantic relationships that so often prove so stifling to her characters. 

In Incidents in the Rue Laugier, Maud's mother Nadine is focused on finding a suitable way to get Maud married off as soon as possible. When they go to Nadine's sister's place for their summer holiday Maud is introduced to her cousin Xavier's English friend Robert Tyler and to his college friend Edward Harrison who has been invited to help make up numbers for tennis. There are actually spoilers in this Brookner so I am going to skip over a few things and just say that Maud and Edward end up marrying. Neither really want it but neither seem to have the will to make anything else happen. Time and again there are suitable opportunities to call it off but both lack enough imagination to come up with any alternative plans for life. 

For the most part I have no problem speaking my mind and am often honest to a fault. But what I have realized over the years is that sometimes I work through issues in my head and forget that I haven't shared that process or outcome with others. The result then in those circumstances is not un-Brooknerian, leading to missed opportunities, confusion, miscommunication, mistaken impressions, and even bad feelings. When discussing one of the most consequential moments of her life, Maud asks her mother why she didn't warn her or try and save her from a bad situation. Nadine's response? 
We were at dinner, if you remember. Nobody argues at the dinner table.
I would never let something as trivial as that keep me from an important discussion, but my own communication foibles can have the same result. For myself, whatever challenge I may create or find myself in I tend not to let them add to any sort of cumulative inevitability. One of the glories of adult life is the ability to redefine or reset your own destiny even if within broader constraints. But for Maud and Edward and most everyone else who ambles across the pages of Incidents in the Rue Laugier inertia is an unalterable functional reality.

Brookner chooses an uncharacteristically unconventional narrative approach. The novel begins and ends with Maud's daughter Mary finding her mother's notebook after her death. She tells us right off the bat that she is to be our unreliable narrator as she launches into Maud's life story. What we don't find out until the end is just how little real information that notebook offered and that what we have been reading is more or less pure fantasy on Mary's part.
But it is also true that most lives are incomplete, that death precludes explanations...But that notebook serves as a reminder. Its lesson--that any notation, any record, is better than none--tells me that life is brief, and also that it is memorable, that the trace it leaves behind is indelible. And if the trace is inscrutable, this too may be appropriate. The dead, perhaps even more than the living, have a right to their mysteries. And who knows? We, the survivors, may be called upon to explain them, if only to ourselves.

Sunday, March 3, 2019

Brookner and a bathtub

When I was looking online for a hotel to stay in for one night in Turin I did as I typically would do and tried to find some cool boutique hotel in an interesting neighborhood. There were some pretty interesting options but I decided I wanted something close to the train station and/or the Teatro Regio. In making that choice I was somewhat limited in my choice of the types of hotels available. As I started to comb through the rather uninspiring options I thought, you'll be alps adjacent, why not stay in a grand old hotel that an Anita Brookner character might choose. Something that looks like it would have porters and telegrams and mature women travelling with their adult daughters. The thing is, by the time my trip rolled around I had forgotten that was my motivation. And then an interesting thing happened on the train...but first...When I bought my train ticket for the one-hour trip from Milan to Turin I somewhat impulsively chose a first class ticket. The price difference wasn't all that much and with my tummy issues, anything I could do to minimize possible annoyances seemed like a good idea. As I sat comfortably in my seat watching the snow-capped mountains in the distance I noticed this character...

My first thought was that she looked like someone who could be one of the more glamorous characters in a Brookner novel. (Again, I had totally forgot about my Brookner-related hotel choice.) Then the gentle lady spoke to her husband. She was English. Check. They were discussing how the 59-minute train delay was going to make them miss their connection to Switzerland. Check. It seems they are English but have a house in the Swiss Alps. Check. Then gets on the phone to someone (a housekeeper perhaps) in Switzerland to tell her they wouldn't be arriving until the next day and asking how much snow there had been and whether the huskies had been out yet. Check and Check. I'm pretty sure Brookner never overtly discussed the snow in Switzerland in her novels or mentioned many dogs, and certainly not huskies. But seriously, how could this woman not be a secondary Brookner character? I almost asked her if her name was Dolly. [If you've never read Brookner none of this makes much sense.] So then I get to my hotel in Turin, feeling both tired and still nursing the dull pain in my stomach, and it slowly begins to dawn on me that this was to be my Brookner hotel. If I had stayed true to Brookner form I should have had tea sent up to my room, but I didn't. 

I made it an early night and was asleep by 9:30. Check. It was a warm room, perhaps too warm, and I had fitful but dreamless sleep. Check. Rather than feel the need to do much in the way of sightseeing the next morning, I took a long hot bath and lounged in my room until check out time. Check and check.

[Originally posted at Hogglestock.]