Friday, January 17, 2014

Review: Family and Friends

 
This review originally posted on My Porch.

One of the best reading ideas I ever had was to re-read all of Anita Brookner's novels in chronological order. My challenge in writing reviews for these re-reads is whether or not I dare to try and put each of them into context with all the others. Given that Brookner has written 24 novels (so far, fingers crossed for 25...) to try and do so would be foolish for someone of my limited critical abilities. Twenty-four books is a lot to try and keep straight and seeing as I started reading them about 15 years ago, I certainly don't remember each of them as if I read them yesterday. Of course I often couldn't even tell you what I actually did read yesterday so you start to see my challenge.

Published in 1985, Family and Friends was Brookner's fifth novel and her first to focus on an entire family rather than her more usual focus on a single individual. To be sure, matriarch and widow Sofka Dorn is the center of the book and the actions of each of her four children are presented in relation to Sofka's dominance and needs, but unlike so many Brookner novels, these kids actually go out and live their lives. That is, at least two of them do. It is debatable whether or not the other two do. Oldest son Frederick isn't all that much interested in running the family factory and begins to place much of the burden on his 16-year old brother Alfred. Oldest daughter Mimi, is more beautiful than her younger sister Betty, but being the much more serious of the two, she seems destined to be the sad Brookner heroine we fans have grown to expect (and love). Meanwhile Betty takes life by the horns and refuses to let go until she has things just as she wants them.

As with most Brookner novel's Family and Friends is set in London, but unlike most of her works, the action takes place in years leading up to World War II. Here and there Brookner gives just the slightest sense of the political winds on the Continent. There may be refugees working in her kitchen and neighbors from the old country needing help, but they are really just background, or they show up to help define the main characters. In fact this is one of the brilliant things about Brookner in general. Her books are such fantastic studies of emotions and personalities that the rest of the world barely exists. She doesn't waste a lot of time creating a world outside her characters' heads but she does that so well one doesn't miss it. It's a kind of writing that requires a fair amount of cultural fluency. To be honest, the first time I read this book I missed much of that background.

Each of us to some degree is influenced by our family. But some families constitute a more closed ecosystem than others. Not surprisingly, Sofka has created--but is ultimately unable to maintain--a world that seems to kits her children out to be nothing else than their mother's children. The boys were tutored at home and the girls given a governess. "They wound up with numerous accomplishments but no real education."

"To Frederick [Sofka] is an oasis of sanity in a world peopled by increasingly difficult women."  Even today, I bet each of us can point to at least one man that fits that bill--no woman can serve him as well as mama did.  "To Alfred Sofka is quite simply a deity ... He knows no one as beautiful as Sofka ... she has seen to it that his life never will escape her ... " Frederick ends up marrying Evie, someone quite unexpected and perhaps exactly the kind of difficult woman his mother was not. The two of them move to Italy to run a hotel owned by Evie's family. Alfred, on the other hand, never leaves his mother but also seems subconsciously to be punishing her for imprisoning him. He has mistresses under his mother's nose, takes up a weekend house in the country she doesn't entirely like with a cook she doesn't approve of, and even moves them into a flat a very masculine flat with rooms the color of cigars.

But what of the girls? Mimi, thwarted in love by the younger, less pretty Betty decides to lead a nun-like existence until she marries the much, much older major domo of the family business. (I read this book while in the early pages of Middlemarch and I couldn't help but see some slight similarities between Mimi and Dodo.) Betty, meanwhile decides to stay in Paris rather than continue her journey to Switzerland for finishing school. She dances on the stage for awhile before marrying a movie producer and moving to California.

Ultimately Mimi and Alfred stay by Sofka's side until the end while Frederick and Betty don't even bother come back to visit. Not ever. Not even when she is dying.

Although Family and Friends has far more action than a typical Brookner novel, one doesn't read Brookner for action. One reads her for her ability to develop a character and describe them with great nuance and economy. Instead of being painted by a famous painter, I would love to be described by Anita Brookner. I'm sure I wouldn't like it, but I would love the way she said it.

For those who haven't read Brookner before, I think this would be a good one to ease into her style and the sadness that pervades much of her work. In fact there were moments of Family and Friends that actually seemed joyful.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Review: Lewis Percy


The following review of Lewis Percy was posted at Heavenali.



I have become rather a fan of Anita Brookner although of the 24 novels she has written this is only the eleventh I have read. I love the mood she creates with her writing, the lonely suburbia, damp evening London streets, the senses of quiet isolation and life slipping by unremarked. Her books are fairly small, although I find her a “slow read” – books I need to take time over. I also find her extremely hard to review. This is therefore likely to be a very short review.
Most of the Brookner novels that I have read have been from a female perspective, this is only the second I have read from a male perspective. Lewis Percy is a lonely bookish academic. As the novel starts he is a student in Paris in 1959 – where after a day in the library he looks forward to going back to his rented room in a house full of women. Here he enjoys simple companionship, listening to the conversations of the other inhabitants of the house.
Lewis returns home to London, to the house he shares quietly with his mother. He knows it is an unremarkable life – but he is even then unfit for any other. When his mother dies suddenly Lewis is aware of his utter aloneness. Lewis is desperately ill-equipped for life on his own and needs someone else to take care of the day to day practicalities of running a home. First he engages a daily help – who rather begins to take over his home, but soon he starts to think more in terms of marriage. He meets agoraphobic Tissy at the library where he used to collect his mother’s books. There is no romance – they are merely beneficial to each other. The unsatisfactory nature of this marriage – and the way in which it inevitably ends is beautifully portrayed by Anita Brookner.
“He did not for a moment believe that she had left him. The suspicion began later, as the weeks passed. He thought at first for a person of Tissy’s susceptibilities pregnancy, and a late pregnancy at that was bound to be upsetting.
“He loved her in a hurt damaged way. He loved her as a child might love a broken doll, half frightened at having caused the breakage.”
At times out of step with the world he is living in Lewis must find a way to move forward and break away from his non marriage.

Review: Brief Lives


The following review of Brief Lives was posted at Heavenali.



I really do love Anita Brookner’s writing, although, I find when it comes to writing a review I am somewhat at a loss to explain why. Her novels are certainly not plot driven, and people who only like plot driven narratives might well be driven mad by the quiet contemplation and introspection. I like the quite genteel lives of Brookner’s world, and find – maybe alarmingly that I understand them. I often hear and see the word depressing applied to reviews of Brookner’s novels – well I can see why – though I prefer the term melancholic. Anita Brookner does make me examine my own life – and it’s not always comfortable to do so.
In Brief Lives we meet Fay and Julia in middle and late middle age. Both are married – and later widowed, affluent and childless. Fay was once a singer on the radio before her marriage, Julia an actress – who has ever since retained her sense of the dramatic. The novel opens with Fay reading of Julia’s death, a woman with whom she shared a great deal of her life until more recently.
“Julia died. I read it in The Times this morning. There was quite a substantial obituary, but what immediately fixed my attention was the photograph, one of those studio portraits of the late 1930’s or early 1940’s, all huge semi-transparent eyes, flat hair, and dark lipstick. I never liked her, nor did she like me; strange, then, how we managed to keep up a sort of friendship for so long.”
In her younger days, newly married, Fay lives in quiet fear of her mother-in-law Vinnie, who’s obsessive like adoration of her son Owen is intimidating. This relationship is mirrored to an extent in the “friendship” that develops between Fay and Julia, Julia the wife of Owen’s business partner. As the years pass, Julia – eleven years Fay’s senior – becomes more reliant upon Fay – in a purely selfish way, she manipulates Fay, who, knowing that she is in thrall to Julia seems unable to leave Julia behind, even when their husbands through whom they are connected have died. Julia is a kind of frail but elegant bully. Around Julia are the lonely women, who help her live quietly in her grand flat, including a slightly pathetic young woman Maureen who Julia obviously despises, and Julia’s former dresser from her theatrical days. Julia orders them around in her imperious way, little appreciating what they do for her, while telephoning Fay to wheedle another visit. As she herself ages, Fay must contend with the deaths of her mother and then her husband, finding that she is now alone, alters Fay’s view of herself and the world around her.
“I was very lonely during the weeks that followed my mother’s death. I knew that I should never again be all the world to anyone, as it says in the song. Normally I despise women who claim never to have got over their parents’ death, or who affirm that their fathers were the most perfect men who had ever lived. I despise them, but I understand them. How can any later love compensate for the first, unless it is perfect? My simple parents had thought me unique, matchless, yet they had let me go away from them without a murmur of protest.”
Although I enjoyed this novel enormously, Brief Lives won’t be my favourite Brookner novel, I think that would be A Closed Eye, or Look at Me, however it is a typical Brookner book and so if you were to read it and enjoy it, then it would be fair to say you will like her others too. Anita Brookner’s writing is beautiful, her observations of people in their quiet genteel lives, for me quite unparalleled. Though I find there is a coldness to Brookner’s writing, which is absent in the novels of such writers as Elizabeth Taylor and Barbara Pym, who also examine the lives of upper or middle class women. With its overriding themes of ageing and nostalgia, Brief Lives is an intelligent and poignant novel, which benefits from a slow and considered reading.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Penguin, how could you?

  
This Anita Brookner novella is only available in e-format and that e-format isn't available in the United States. (At least according to iBooks, and Penguin's website.)

HOW LAME!

Another reason to hate e-readers. If this was a real book only available in the UK, I could at least have a friend buy it and mail it to me.

Anyone know a way around this?

Friday, October 12, 2012

Brookner Review Central

I am grateful that people are still finding this blog and sending me emails of encouragement and thanks. Some people email and let me know that they have reviewed a Brookner novel, and other reviews I find on my own among the blogs I frequent. I suppose if I did some Googling I would come across more blog reviews of Brookner novels, but I will save that project for a rainy day.

In the meantime, you will note that I posted two more reviews of Hotel du Lac today. Having won the Booker Prize, it is no surprise that HdL is the most read and reviewed Brookner on this site. In fact, 12 of the 42 reviews posted here are for HdL. The remaining 30 reviews are spread out among 15 other Brookner novels. (If you click on the review index button above you can see all of the reviews listed with links to the actual review.)

One might ask: "Don't you have enough reviews of HdL?" Although it would be nice to fill in the list with reviews of other Brookner novels, I am still more than happy to take whatever HdL reviews come my way.  My goal is to be a one stop shop for blogger reviews of AB's 24 (and counting?) novels.

I think I may create another tab above that lists all of the non-review posts on the site so that one can check out other aspects of AB without having to scroll through every review. But that might also be saved for the aforementioned rainy day.

And for those of you who like London or urban geography make sure you check out my still small but growing compendium of London place names that appear in Brookner's fiction which can also be found on one of the buttons at the top of the page.

This weekend I am going to figure out how to download AB's e-novella At the Hairdresser's.

Review: Hotel du Lac

This review of Hotel du Lac was originally posted at Desperate Reader.
 
'Hotel Du Lac' is the latest read from a postal book group I belong to (it's a brilliant idea - not mine - there are 15 of us in the current round, you send a book out along with a notebook, and get it back a couple of years later with everybody's comments attached, it'a a remarkably pressure free set up and I've discovered some great books this way) it's also the first Anita Brookner I've tried.

Reading through the comments that others left in the notebook has in this instance proved an exceptionally helpful way of clarifying my own thoughts on the book - curiously, because this is by no means common, most of us seem to have had similar reactions to it. 'Hotel Du Lac' won the booker in 1984, but in many ways it feels like a much earlier sort of book. The central character, Edith, works for a living - but as a lady novelist writing harmless romances which feels very 1930's. Her need to escape a scandal she's caused, and the method she chooses to escape is positively Edwardian - discreet retirement to a Swiss hotel to see out the end of the season. Did people really behave like this in the 1980's? Especially people living in mildly intellectual and literary circles in London - it seems somehow unlikely.

Edith, who has a certain measure of success as a novelist hankers after the comfort and companionship of married life, unfortunately she has chosen a married lover instead - one who obviously won't leave his wife. Along comes another man who seems to think she'll fill his mothers shoes, in this case the allure of marriage is all in the status it will confer; instead of being a troubling single woman Edith will be safely married off and far more welcome at dinner parties. She changes her mind at the last possible moment - hence the exile, and whilst in Switzerland she meets another wealthy, presentable, man who puts forward a case for marriage in even starker terms - it's all about position, and a woman without a husband apparently has a very precarious one.

Edith's ability to attract men, despite her habit for long cardigans, and albeit men with some fairly serious shortcomings gives the book the feel of a standard romance - dowdy woman gets the men over her glossier, blonder, sisters because they see through to her innate qualities beneath - but Edith is both too passive and too well off for this reader to care much about.

I know people rate Anita Brookner's books - I'm inclined to think with this one that it's reached a difficult age where to many things about it feel awkward and contrived. Despite that feeling the writing is often beautiful, and occasionally strikes a real chord, as when Edith feels she may have had enough of having to earn her own living; that writing is no longer a creative pursuit, but is instead likely to become a never ending chore that must be done to make ends meet. 

Review: Hotel du Lac

This review of Hotel du Lac was posted recently by Emily at EmilyBooks.

I knew I was going to enjoy Hotel du Lac when I reached the third page, on which Anita Brookner described Edith’s hotel room as ‘the colour of over-cooked veal’. It sounds so perfectly disgusting – the insipid colour, the dryness, the foul tough chewy taste and also curiously old-fashioned, as veal is one of those things rarely eaten these days.

The book is peppered with moments like this, these little phrases which are spot on – imaginative, evocative and also drily funny. To my mind, Penelope Fitzgerald (see here) and Elizabeth Taylor (see here) are the real mistresses of them, but Anita Brookner is not far behind.

In Hotel du Lac, these pert phrases sparkle against what some might find to be rather a quiet, dull background of a Swiss hotel with its dotty residents who sit around not doing very much. But I liked the quietness of the novel, the feeling of the hotel’s slow crumbling decline, while clinging on to its delusions of grandeur – an attitude not unlike that shared by many of its ageing, fading residents.

The hotel is the setting for a short episode in the life of Edith Hope. A romantic novelist, Edith has been bundled off to the Hotel du Lac in the wake of a mysterious ‘event’ in order to escape the scandal and – it is hoped – reflect on her bad behaviour. Her story gradually unfolds as she observes the peculiar residents of the hotel, who have their own rather idiosyncratic tales to tell.

In many ways Hotel du Lac feels like an older novel. I suppose, as it was written in the eighties, it is reasonably old now. But it feels more like a novel of the thirties – which was probably the heyday of the Hotel du Lac. People still dress for dinner, ask people to join them for coffee, and enjoy other dated forms of behaviour – it is as though the hotel exists in something of a time warp. Some of my favourite moments are when this old-fashioned feel clashes with something terribly eighties, such as one of the guests dressing for dinner in:
pink harem pants, teamed, as they say in the fashion mags, with an off the shoulder blouse.
Not the elegant silk gown one was expecting!
Anita Brookner is revisiting this old-fashioned scenario of a grand Swiss hotel and re-examining it in a modern light. Not only in terms of fashion, but as a background to re-asses ideas about love and about women.
It becomes clear pretty early on that Edith has been having an affair with a married man. David and her have an affair that seems to consist of visits to private views at art galleries, lots of sex and then her cooking him tremendous fry ups in the middle of the night. Actually that sounds quite fun. But we are often reminded that David has a wife and children; Edith is the other woman. And yet, as Edith is the narrator, and is timid and a bit hopeless, the reader can’t help but sympathise with her. She is not the scheming ‘baddie’ one would automatically expect the other woman to be.

In thinking about the age-old issue of affairs, Anita Brookner calls up an older literary exploration of it, Elizabeth Jenkins’s 1954 novel The Tortoise and the Hare, which is one of my favourite books – terribly sad, too brilliant and I wrote about it here. Edith has a conversation with her agent about the tortoise and the hare, which she terms ‘the most potent myth of all’:
In my books it is the mouse-like unassuming girl who gets the hero, while the scornful temptress with whom he has had a stormy affair retreats baffled from the fray, never to return. The tortoise wins every time. This is a lie, of course … In real life, of course, 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 don’t have time to read.
In The Tortoise and the Hare, Jenkins deploys Aesop’s fable as an extended metaphor for a failing marriage and an adulterous other woman. What is so clever about Elizabeth Jenkins’s book, as Carmen Calil points out in her Afterword, is that while you read it you are endlessly reassessing who you think is the tortoise and who the hare. From this conversation, it would seem that Edith thinks the slow unassuming wife is the tortoise, the swift scornful hare the adulteress. She bemoans the fact that in the novels she writes the tortoise always wins, when that isn’t true to life.
But hang on a minute, Edith is herself a character in a novel, and she is the adulteress. Does that mean that she is the swift scornful hare? Does that mean that, because she is encased within a novel, she will lose? Or, in terms of her ‘real life’, as opposed to the novels she writes, will she win?
Perhaps Anita Brookner is just as clever as Elizabeth Jenkins here, because Edith is as much a tortoise – timid, miserable, reading lots of books – as a husband-stealing hare. And the little we see of David’s wife does not make her seem particularly tortoise-like:
Highly coloured, drinking rather a lot, argumentative. Sexy, she thought painfully. But discontented, nevertheless.
The metaphor of the tortoise and the hare, so brilliantly employed by Elizabeth Jenkins, rather falls apart in this context, where the women in question are shown to possess qualities of both. That was the fifties, this is the eighties, says Anita Brookner, and things have changed.
I suppose what feels rather depressing about Hotel du Lac – aside from the grey light and veal-coloured rooms and somewhat lost, rejected-by-society cast of characters – is that Brookner gives such a negative portrayal of love affairs. Things haven’t changed for the better, in terms of relationships.
Edith has to choose whether to marry and live the life of a tortoise or to continue with her affair and live the life of the hare. Neither seems particularly appealing or fulfilling. Really what makes Edith happy is writing and sitting in her garden – man-free activities. Could Brookner be suggesting that the race to win a man simply isn’t worth running anymore? By exploding these roles of tortoise and hare, Brookner suggests that rather than trying to squeeze into such ill-fitting moulds, women should run in a different race altogether, a race in which men don’t feature.
This pulling apart of the tortoise and the hare myth is part of Brookner’s wider assessment of women. Here is Edith’s scathing description of women who are ‘ultra-feminine’:
the complacent consumers of men with their complicated but unwritten rules of what is due to them. Treats. Indulgences. Privileges. The right to make illogical fusses. The cult of themselves. Such women strike me as dishonourable. And terrifying.
Terrifying indeed!

Ladies, I suppose the lesson here is to tend to your garden, as Voltaire instructed, and live as a self-sufficient individual without needing to ‘consume’ men in such a hideous way. Rather than choosing between being a tortoise or a hare, Brookner suggests that a woman can be a different creature altogether.