Monday, June 4, 2018

Review: Dolly / A Family Romance

[Number 13 in my chronological re-read of Brookner's 24 novels.]

As I work my way through a chronological re-read of all 24 of Anita Brookner's novels, it becomes harder and harder for me to write what passes for a "review" on this blog. I've never been very good at bringing any real light to the books I read, but when the  writing in a novel is so taut and precise and perfect, it just makes anything that comes out of my mouth seem like garbage. For as much as I love Brookner's work I've not really read anything about her writing process. She was a bit reclusive so perhaps she never really shared that information, but I have to wonder, was Brookner like Mozart whose work allegedly came out of his head fully formed, or are her manuscripts illegible because of all the strike-throughs as she hunted for the most elegant version of perfection?

In the US Anita Brookner's 13th novel is called Dolly. In the UK, and perhaps everywhere else, it is called A Family Romance. For those who know Brookner's work, you could not be faulted for thinking that there was no way that she wrote a hearts and roses kind of romance. And you'd be right. This tale sits squarely on the less used, secondary definition of 'romance' that is synonymous with "wild exaggeration" and "picturesque falsehood".

I first thought that the US title Dolly was far more descriptive given that the character Dolly is like a force of nature blowing her way across every page with hurricane force. But really, this book is about Jane Manning, the niece of Dolly's late husband Hugo. Dolly would hate that I would take the spotlight away from her, and Jane would be appalled that anyone might think she was drawing attention to herself. But for all that Dolly dominates the book and Jane's life, the fact that we see all of this through Jane's eyes and we understand the impact Dolly is having on Jane one begins to realize that this has much more to do with Jane than Dolly. This seems particularly true somewhere along the way when Jane's role of narrator takes on an omniscience that seems, upon reflection, to be much more about what Jane imagines than what we know for a fact Dolly actually does. One could suppose that Brookner got sloppy and couldn't figure out how to convey the  action without making Jane omniscient. But I don't think Brookner was capable of sloppy.

In terms of plot and setting, all of the Brookner hallmarks are there. A young woman of modestly independent needs (and that's all relative, as Brookner even admits in the text) spends her time being lonely and wanting to be alone and at the same time. There is a francophone element, lots of walking through London, and lots of suppressed emotion. More specifically, Jane finds herself orphaned at 18 with only an aunt by marriage (Dolly) to call family. As the holder of inherited wealth she has also inherited the self-imposed responsibility to see that Dolly is financially secure.

And then there is Dolly. Raised by a single hard-working, but poor mother, Dolly never gets over being poor and she never gets over not belonging. Although Dolly finds security in Jane's uncle Hugo (before Jane was born) his untimely death leaves her untethered and without an audience and status. Her need for financial assistance first from Hugo's mother, then Hugo's sister (Jane's mother), and finally from Jane, has more to do with Dolly's need to buy friends (and attention) then it has to do with economic security. With catch phrases like "Charm, Jane, charm!", I had a hard time not hearing the voice of Penny from the British TV show "As Time Goes By".

In the final chapter Jane is in America on a lecture circuit of women's colleges where she has trouble connecting with the young female students whose every discussion focuses on gender. At first I had a hard time understanding the point of all of this other than an opportunity for Brookner to go after political correctness--which she does in a characterization of progressive male partners/husbands that could have been background for a character on Portlandia--but a closer read indicates that there is more to it than that. Just like Dolly's abhorrence over Jane's unmarried state, most of these young feminists have husbands, and despite their feminism, seem to have a hard time relating to her because she was unmarried. Jane has a hard time convincing them that she is "any kind of woman".
It is not that they would necessarily want me to find love and marriage, in the sense of a happy ending. But if I were sharing household chores with some cheerful fellow in jeans and a shirt ironed by himself they could understand me better. How then to disappoint them by telling them that I prefer the fairy-tale version, and will prefer it until I die, even though I may be destined to die alone?
 No doubt Jane would have an even harder time explaining that notion to Dolly whose quest for the fairy-tale version has resulted in less than fairy-tale circumstances over the years--and an old age that still has her dying alone.

Crossposted at Hogglestock.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Review: Fraud

[Number 12 in my chronological re-read of Brookner's 24 novels.]

Anna Durrant is a "woman in her middle years" who has gone missing, but it has taken four months for anyone to notice. Her physician, Dr Lawrence Halliday, notified the police after she had missed several appointments. As the police begin to investigate we are introduced to the handful of people who are closest to Anna and in turn discover that none of them are really very close to her. There is her char woman Mrs Duncan, her late mother's frenemy Mrs Marsh, and Dr Halliday--the man her mother expected her to marry.

As the investigation continues the story of Anna and her relationships with her social circle is explained. Mrs Duncan really only sees her as a paycheck. Mrs. Marsh resents Anna's attentiveness, almost taking umbrage at her willingness to run errands, walk her to church, and take care of her while she is ill. Despite Mrs Marsh's old age and relative isolation she seems to feel that Anna is the one to pity. It's as if Mrs Marsh feels that associating with Anna--who had never been married or led any kind of interesting life--might reflect poorly on her own image. I have always obsessed about getting old and and being alone. Now that I am 48 I am beginning to wonder if even the best laid plans can go belly up and one can still end up alone in old age. Which is why I wonder why Mrs Marsh doesn't lighten up and appreciate Anna. But then I think about how sensitive I am to people that don't suit me perfectly and how little patience I have for them, and I can only imagine what kind of miserable bastard I am going to be in 30 years. I found this scene with Mrs Marsh particularly sad and beautiful.
Failing God, one turned to Nature. If only the year would turn, she thought longingly, as she plodded down the stairs to her own flat. If only I could smell grass and feel heat and see the sun! For now she craved only light and thought that if she lived until summer she would stare at the sun, taking its radiance into her very substance, letting her eyes burn until they were sightless. She would not mind dying, if it could be in the summer.
Dr Halliday's relationship with Anna is slightly more complicated and intimate. Not only is he Anna's and her late mother's doctor, but also the man her mother assumed she would marry. It seems Anna and Dr Halliday also assumed at different times the same thing. But Lawrence succumbs to the physical charms of Vickie Gibson, a slightly younger woman of a particularly superficial bent. Knowing how much the news will distress her ailing mother, both Anna and Lawrence keep the news of his marriage to Vickie a secret and Mrs Durrant goes to her grave thinking that Anna and Lawrence will be married. Although never spoken of, it eventually becomes clear to both Anna and Lawrence that they both would have been happier if they had married. Lawrence quickly tires of vapid Vickie and doesn't quite know what to do about it other than go on two-hour runs each night after work. This indeed, might be the earliest clear indication of the fraud in Fraud. First the charade of Anna and Lawrence pretending to Mrs Durrant and then fraud of Lawrence's marriage itself.

A fraud Anna perpetrates on herself is what she has done, and what she means to do to fill her life. Not needing a job, Anna is adrift except for her "research". When her mother is gone, Mrs Marsh is distant, and Lawrence occupied with Vickie, Anna doesn't know what to do with herself.
There was always her work of course, that not altogether invalid project to write a series of articles, or even, if she were capable of it, something more substantial, on the great salons of Paris during the Second Empire. The research had given her some agreeable moments, but she could not quite hide from herself the knowledge that until now the work had been more alibi than pastime, enabling her to escape...
The big fraud of the book is eventually identified and articulated by Anna herself. In the end we find her in Paris seemingly having figured out what to do with herself. It is kind of a deliciously odd ending because up until the final pages of the book it seems like we may never hear from Anna again with the action focused on Mrs Marsh and her daughter Philippa. But then Anna bumps into Philippa in a cafe and is surprised to learn from her that her absence in London has been noted. Anna expresses surprise at Phillipa's assertion that Mrs Marsh was very fond of her. Anna, tapped into some new source of self awareness and confidence, expresses her doubts about Mrs Marsh's feelings about her and explains to Philippa that she has spent her life being what others wanted her to be. The scales pulled from her eyes, Anna is no longer willing to continue the fraud that others have perpetuated on her through their expectations of her.
"I've grown up at last. Do you know how long it takes some of us? And now I'm free. Free of the old self. Free of expectations."
"Free of hope?"
"Oh, no, never free of hope. Hope is an old habit, not easily dislodged. No, free of expectations. I reserve my hope for a good outcome, a good cause. That is important, I think. A good cause."

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.