Saturday, October 31, 2015
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.
Sunday, May 17, 2015
I feel like I should be an expert on A Friend from England. Not only did I just finish re-reading the novel, but I also listened to the audio version after that. The process of re-reading allowed me to reacquaint myself with the plot and, being a re-read, I was able to focus on details I missed the first time around. With the plot still fresh in my mind, following that up with the audiobook was pretty enlightening. Listening to the book each day--without having to read the words myself--really allowed me to think about the characters and what motivated them. It also had me thinking about what kind of people they really were and whether or not I have known anyone like them in my own life.
Thirty-something Rachel, her parents both dead, has been befriended by her father's (and now her own) accountant Oscar Livingstone and his wife Dorrie. Rachel enjoys being a part of their family circle even if she is somewhat ambivalent, at least at first, about their daughter Heather. Although just a few years younger than Rachel, Heather is not someone with whom Rachel finds much in common. Rachel sees Heather as cosseted and helpless. She runs a dress shop her parents bought for her and she seems to Rachel to be naive and ill-equipped to deal with the adult world.
Rachel also runs a shop (a bookshop no less) but considers herself to be the opposite of Heather in just about every way. Lacking parents or any other relatives on whom she can rely, Rachel considers herself far more worldly and capable than Heather, and she resents the way in which Oscar and Dorrie have her on such a high pedestal. Part of me thinks that Rachel's problem with Heather has less to do with a dislike of Heather and more to do with feelings of envy that she is not the focus of Heather's parents' attention.
On top of this, we are led to believe that Rachel, unlike Heather, has an extremely varied and busy sex life. Brookner never specifies what Rachel gets up to at night but she makes repeated references to activity that had me wondering if Rachel turned tricks in the seedier parts of town. I don't think that is really the case but it is clear that she has multiple sexual partners and prides herself on never getting close to any of them. Not surprisingly, Heather's approach to love and relationships is the opposite, and that, to Rachel, is further proof of Heather's naive view of the world.
Once the characters have been introduced and Rachel's emotional and psychological workings have been laid out, the novel moves us through a few crises that don't directly involve Rachel yet they seem to consume her mental capacity. Aside from buying out a partner in her bookshop and buying her flat, Brookner never really lets us into Rachel's world except as it intersects with that of the Livingstone's. Rachel turns out to be the eponymous friend from England and that seems to explain a lot. Despite her social, sexual, and business independence, it seems that in the end the only way Brookner allows Rachel to be defined is as someone's friend. Rather than having her own identity and being someone that people recognize as an individual, she is seen as an appurtenance to the lives of others, and an inconsequential one at that.
One side note I found interesting, there are two gay characters in the book, one incidental and the other of specific importance to the plot. As with many things, Brookner never comes out and says it. It is just implied almost as if it were happening off-stage, like Rachel's sex life. The only reason I bring it up is that the cultural signifiers Brookner uses to let us know they are gay are so painfully indicative of a time that is not that long ago but might as well be light years in the past. We learn that one character is gay not just because he is in what is almost imperceptibly implied to be a gay pub, but because he is wearing eye shadow. This seems a bit of a throwback even for 1987. The only thing missing is a limp wrist and a lisp. Oh, I take it back, I do believe at one point Brookner references the sibilance of the gay character's speech. So glad that this depiction now seems as old fashioned as it does. Changes over the past 28 years have, in most circles, annihilated the attitudes that helped promulgate Thatcher's notoriously anti-gay Clause 28. And good riddance.
Wednesday, April 8, 2015
Just about every relationship in The Misalliance (or A Misalliance in the UK) could be considered a misalliance.
After being left by her husband of twenty years Blanche spends her days wandering the National Gallery and her solitary evenings with a bottle of wine. She spends a fair amount of time in musing on the reasons why her husband left her and the type of woman he left her for, but I never got the feeling that that was the point of this novel. In many ways Blanche seems rather complacent about her husband's departure, as if it had been her own fault for not being the right kind of woman. That in itself is tragic given that she devoted her married life to becoming the kind of public and private companion that her husband Bertie seemed to want.
While volunteering at the local hospital one day Blanche is drawn to Sally Beamish, a young mother who is there trying to get help for her three-year old daughter Elinor/Nellie who is mute. Blanche is immediately taken with the child, seeing her as a patient, old soul putting up with a flighty mother and an absent father. Indeed she sees Nellie as a kindred spirit and she moves to offer assistance to Sally whose life is a bit of a self-imposed mess. Her husband Paul is off being a factotum for a wealthy American family who have oddly decided to only pay him in one lump sum at the end of an extended trip. By the end of that trip, however, Paul is essentially accused of embezzling funds and is unlikely to get the pay coming to him. This situation never amounts to anything with legal implications but Blanche is coerced into intervening on Paul's behalf --a man she has never even seen before.
Throughout all of this Blanche's ex-husband Bertie continues to drop in most evenings ostensibly to see how Blanche is doing. This struck me as Bertie wanting to have it both ways. Why give up the comforts of a trusted, supportive ex-spouse just because you have moved on to a younger, more dynamic wife? Although Blanche looks forward to these meetings and retains an emotional attachment to Bertie, I never got the feeling that they were necessary to her well-being. If anything I felt they might be keeping her from moving forward. Also part of the story is Patrick, a suitor in the days prior to Bertie with whom she has remained friends over the years. She asks for his advice on how to best help Sally and Nellie and he ends up falling in love with the much younger Sally. Nothing ever comes of it, Sally uses Patrick for support in the same way she uses Blanche, but it is enough for Blanche to see Patrick for what he really is.
Blanche is a bit of a victim of male behavior and privilege, and although she is a bit stuck trying to make sense of it all, I kind of felt like she might be on the cusp of something. Perhaps it's a recognition that the men in her life are really rather weak and certainly not to be relied upon. Blanche's decision to leave them all behind and go off traveling for an extended, undefined period is, I suppose, at least partly out of desperation. But I couldn't help projecting my own wishes for Blanche. This was going to be the moment of her triumph. The moment when she leaves it all behind and discovers who she really is.
And then at the eleventh hour Bertie returns--and seemingly for good. Is this vindication for Blanche and the restoration of her married life? Perhaps, but rather than finding it something to celebrate, I found it no more than a threat to her ultimate happiness. A return to her life in a comfy prison. But Brookner leaves us hanging as to what happens next. My feeling is that if Blanche does take him back it won't stick. He may not leave her again but she will realize he isn't what she wants and this is the real misalliance of the book. Not the first 20 years, not the connection with Sally and Nellie, but what happens after Bertie's return. His return may delay her self-realization, but it won't preempt it entirely.
This thought may not be worth much, but it is something I want to memorialize for my own edification. I loved the scenes where Mrs. Duff comes to Blanche's rescue despite the fact that Blanche has never shown her more than a begrudged politeness. Mrs. Duff's simple, but helpful assistance when Blanche fell ill seems like the only bit of altruism in the book. Brookner doesn't make much of it. But she must have had something in mind. I can think of a few things, but I really just mention it because I was warmed by those scenes.
Friday, January 17, 2014
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
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.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.
“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.”
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
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.)
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?