Thursday, November 3, 2011

Review: Strangers

    
This review of Strangers was posted recently by Ti at Book Chatter.

The Short of It:
Amusing, sharp and unusually accommodating… these characters give meaning to the term, “growing old gracefully.”

The Rest of It:
Paul Sturgis is a 70-something bachelor living in a quiet, London flat. Never married, and having only one living relative, a distant cousin named Helena, Paul finds himself wandering about looking for something but he’s not sure what. To avoid the dreaded Christmas invitation from Helena, he decides to take holiday in Venice.
In Venice, he meets Vicky Gardner. Vicky is an interesting sort. She is pretty,  recently divorced and essentially homeless since she has no permanent place to call home. She flits from place to place, seemingly happy in her travels. Paul, unusually reserved gives his number to Vicky and then immediately regrets it. How lonely does one have to be to finally realize that at the age of 72, being with someone might be better than being alone?

This was my first Brookner and I enjoyed it immensely. These characters are proper, polite and exceedingly friendly, but utterly lonely. They are “strangers” in that they have no idea how to co-exist with one another. Innocent conversations turn into something else and then before you know it, in walks awkwardness. It’s all incredibly entertaining but in a quiet, understated way.

I understand that Strangers is Brookner’s 23rd novel. I can’t believe it took me this long to read one of her books but now I want to read them all. It’s not as if there was a lot going on in this one, or that it was even a page-turner, but it’s the type of writing that I enjoy. When I writer can take every day things and make them interesting, then he/she has my attention.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Talking Posh at the Reunion

This wonderful musing on the recorded voice of Anita Brookner was posted by A Super Dilettante.

"I was dazzled by her at the Courtauld", Neil McGregor, Director of British Museum. PHOTO: Anita Brookner [Art Historian/Novelist] Image Credit: Corbis



I must admit that the best highlight of my weekend was hearing Anita Brookner's voice for the first time on the wireless. I know there are a few people who read this blog know that I adore Anita Brookner's novels. And also we know that she rarely gives interviews so one shouldn't be surprised that one's never heard of Anita's voice.

It was an unexpected pleasure to listen to the BBC Radio 4 programme, The Reunion (the radio programme which reunites a group of people intimately involved in a moment of modern history).

In this edition, the radio presenter, Sue MacGregor reunites five past pupils of London's Courtauld Institute of Art, which pioneered the teaching of art history, has produced countless stars of the art and museum world. Click here to listen to the programme.

Anita Brookner taught Art History at the Courtauld for many years. One of her students (the artist, John McLean) later wrote about Anita as follows, "She gave very elegant lectures. I had never seen anyone so metropolitan and poised".

Dr Sarah Symmons, a former student, who is now a lecturer at the Department of Art History and Theory at the University of Essex, remembers, "'She had a small office at the top of the building and we went in and there was a lovely smell of scent – she always wore a very nice scent. She had the window open and she was spreading seed for the pigeons on the windowsill; she said that she wanted to stop them cooing while she gave the seminar. This was so disarming and pleasant, so different from what all the other staff at the Courtauld were like... [She] was an elegant, stylish figure, always beautifully dressed. In tutorials she would produce a pack of cigarettes. They were non-tipped ones, quite low-grade – I was very impressed'.

I love the bit about the Courtauld in the programme, it was described as a place where smart young ladies used to go to read art history in between their flower arranging course and then, in the afternoon, they would have tea and home made scones provided by the Courtauld tea lady, Mrs Winkle. It sounded all very civilised and a vanished world to me.

The voice of Anita Brookner - it is unmistakably "plummy" (in a very Oxbridge educated voice from a bygone era). It reminded me of elegant ladies who go to lunchtime concerts at Wigmore Hall wearing their best fur coats and floating the luxuriant scent of Vol de Nuit perfume as they enter into the room. The writer, Julian Barnes summed up the way Anita Brookner speaks perfectly when he said, 'One of the most remarkable things about her is that her conversation has perfect punctuation, so that you hear every colon and semi-colon; and this makes you aware that your own grammar in spoken English is very sloppy. It's not a deliberate trick to make you feel uneasy; it's simply how she is.'

Her voice is distinctive and gloriously deep (though not as deep as for instance, the voice of the journalist, Katharine Whitehorn. In those days, the ladies were taught to speak in a deeper voice. Reference book on how to speak eloquently: The Magic Key to Charm by Eileen Ascroft, introduction by Joanna Lumley] but it's incredibly charming upper class drawl. It is not affected in the way the Sloane Rangers speak. She speaks charmingly with open vowels very clearly. I think Anita's voice is a kind of voice that became enriched by years of living in France drinking the most elegant French wine and talking about Delacroix, Goya, Manet and Courbet.

There were other beautiful art historian voices in the programme too. I found the director of British Museum, Neil McGregor's radio voice is incredibly appealing, mellow and addictive to listen to in contrast with a high-mannerist, theatrical, canary squeak of the art critic, Brian Sewell. The radio presenter, John Humphrys once remarked, "Brian Sewell, the only man I have ever met who makes the Queen sound common." His voice reminded me of one of my old art history professors at the university who talked just like him. During his first lecture, he said in his cut glass accent, "First slide, please" to one of my classmates. He sounded so posh that I couldn't stop laughing and I almost fell off from my chair. On the other hand, the voice of the founder of the Art Newspaper, Anna Somers Cocks is utterly cultivated. It has got the eloquent and clipped tone - it's such a clear diction and every word is very pronounced and very well spoken.

Near the end of the programme, Sue MacGregor asked Anita Brookner what the Courtauld Institute of Art gave her as a lecturer. She replied without a hesitation, "A whole life". I thought it was such a profound statement. It reveals that she had so much pride in what she did. It gave her life meaning and a sense of purpose. She even went on to claim that her success as a writer was less interesting than her life at the Courtauld. After listening to this programme, I thought how all these voices and their precise diction echoed the airwaves. They were so interesting, so sophisticated and so individual. Compared to their voices, how bland it is to listen to some of our politicians' voices. The guests in The Reunion programme have unapologetically highbrow, serious, educated, RP (Received Pronunciation) voices which we rarely heard these days. Such voices are not heard very often - not even on the BBC radio and the news programme on television. The presenters have toned down their voices. We have dropped our "t" in the same manner as we drop our trousers down below our waists. The days of Alan Keith (the late presenter of BC Radio 2's programme, Your Hundred Best Tunes) were long gone. In fact, a good standard spoken English is becoming a rarity in places like London and Manchester.

Jonathan Cecil was right when he once wrote, "Good speech is a matter of clarity and the unselfconscious enjoyment of the spoken language".

Reference:
A singular woman, Mick Brown interview with the novelist Anita Brookner. The Telegraph newspaper, 19 Feb 2009

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Review: Making Things Better/The Next Big Thing

The following review of Making Things Better/The Next Big Thing was written by C.B. James at Ready When You Are, C.B.   

I started reading Making Things Better, (called The Next Big Thing in Englandon International Anita Brookner Day; I would never have considered it if Simon and Thomas hadn't come up with the event.  I can't say why really. Anita Brookner just never came up on my radar before IABD.

Ms. Brookner published her first novel at the age of 53 and has published one almost every year since, 24 altogether.  There were three on the shelf at my local library. I'll be honest, I picked Making Things Better because it was the shortest of the three. I can't help but wonder if this was a good place to start.

Virginia Woolf admitted that she wrote lesser books in between her more serious work.  If you randomly pick up her book Flush, a biography of Elizabeth Barrett Browning's dog, for the very first Virginia Woolf book you ever read, you will enjoy the book, but you won't think very much of Virginia Woolf as a writer. Flush is good, but it's not great. From reading Flush, you'd have no idea that Virginia Woolf was capable of a book like Mrs. Dalloway.

Maybe this happened to me with Making Things Better.

Apparently, several people who joined International Anita Brookner Day admired her writing but had issues with the overall passivity of the characters. I'm afraid I had the opposite reaction, at first. The characters passivity did not bother me--there are undoubtedly passive people in the world.  Making Things Better is about Herz, an Englishman who has spent his life in the service of others, doing his duty to his family and his employer. He missed out on his one chance with the love of his life, later married someone else and then lost her, too, both due to his family's circumstances. If he'd left home, things would have gone better for him but he could not abandon his family.

Forced into retirement, he spends the length of the novel observing his own life along with the life of his beautiful, much younger downstairs neighbor until he receives a letter from his first love. This letter sparks him to take action in ways he never has before, to make an attempt to find solace in her company during their final years.

This all sounds like a perfectly good novel, familiar to lots of readers certainly.  Similar to Iris Murdoch's The Sea, The Sea and Andrew Holleran's The Beauty of Men, both of which I loved.  So how can I explain my problem with the novel? Start with this section. Herz is talking to his ex-wife Josie whom he meets for dinner monthly.     
"What is it, Josie?" he asked quietly.
     She smiled sadly. "It never goes away, does it?"
     "I'm sorry."
     "That longing to be with another person."
     "Not with me, I take it."
     "No, no, not with you.  Not even with Tom.  There's a man who comes into the office. We have a drink from time to time.  Married of course.   Yet we get on so well..." She broke off.  "You don't want to hear this."
     "Why not stand your ground? See what comes of it?"
     "Look at me, Julius.  I'm old.  I might as well accept it.  What surprises me is that I could still feel hope, look forward to seeing him, perhaps no more than that.  I couldn't undress for any man now.  As I say, I accept it.  Mother's illness may have been the jolt I needed. Once the decision was made I realized that it had saved me from a lot of uncertainty.  Humiliation, perhaps.  I still have my dignity."
     "I admire you for it.  I know how unwelcome one's dignity can be."
     "So you think I'm right?"
     "Probably.  I also know what you mean. Keeping one's dignity is a lonely business.  And how one longs to let it go."  This was perhaps unwise.  "When shall I see you again?'

Have two people ever had a more bloodless conversation about longing?  Does this strike you as over-written?  Do people really say things like "I know how unwelcome one's dignity can be?" These two sound like characters in a novel, not like two people having a conversation.  (That was my initial reaction.  My feelings have changed since I finished the book.)

Keeping one's dignity is a lonely business sums up the book. It's certainly a decent theme for a novel, and Ms. Brookner handles it quite well. I consider longing  a form of passion which is all but absent from Making Things Better. I kept thinking about how Iris Murdoch handled very similar characters in her The Sea, The Sea, but I can't imagine Anita Bookner ever creating a character who would kidnap a woman because he loved her. That's fine really. We already have one Iris Murdoch; we don't need another.

By the end of Making Things Better I was beginning to think of Anita Brookner as Carson McCuller's English aunt. These passive people she's writing about are the same people who populated The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. People who long for connection with another person but can't take the action needed to gain it for some reason. But while I can find lots of passion in The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, I can't find much in Making Things Better. Everyone is so very well mannered in Ms. Brookner's novel, there's no way they could ever break free of themselves. They are even more hopeless that the people in Ms. McCulller's novel.

I also had problems with the ending. I won't go into those here, but I felt it was a bit of a cheat, and I saw it coming several chapters early. Honestly, it felt a little high school, to me.

So will I read more books by Anita Brookner? I think I will. In spite of the problems I had with Making Things Better the characters and their story has stayed with me for over a week now. Herz is haunting me. I consider that high praise. While I did find the character's passivity frustrating, I cared enough about them to want better lives for them. And while I had problems with Ms. Brookner's writing the first time I read it, it's clear to me that she is the talented stylist Simon and Thomas both said she was.  

Looking at the passage quoted above now, I think it's darn good really. While it may be mannered to the point of unreality, it gets to an essential truth about human nature in an precise, eloquent manner. I find I'm liking it more and more over time.

I hope Thomas and Simon will repeat International Anita Brookner Day next year. I'll be back for another go. I think it will be worth it.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Review: Hotel du Lac

The following review of Hotel du Lac was written by Mel at The Reading Life. I inadvertantly left it out of the IABD review cavalcade in July. My apologies to Mel.

My first Anita Brookner was A Start in Life/The Debut. The second was Leaving Home. I totally loved and think I understood the first line of A Start in Life "Dr Weiss, at forty, knew that her life had been ruined by literature".

I liked both of these novels. The people in her novels all seem to lead very careful well ordered lives. It is a world where one spends hours wondering if it would be a better idea to wear a light or a dark camel colored coat to tonight's lecture at the British Museum on 14th century Baltic ceramics. The novels of Brookner are Northern cold climate books, not works of the Tropics.

The Hotel du Lac won the 1984 Brookner Prize. The story line is pretty straight forward. It centers on Edith Hope, a well known writer of romance novels who has been sent to a hotel in Switzerland to recover from a scandal about her own personal life.

I must say that what I liked best about Hotel du Lac, I really loved it, was the lengthy description of Hotel du Lac itself. It seems like a wonderful place to be a regular guest. The staff and the other guests were just marvelously done.

I did a bit of a study of the first two or three pages of the novel. I think we can learn a lot from some of Brookner's word choice. The word "grey" appears three times in the first paragraph. A character is described as "tight lipped", "older" and "apologetic". A personality is referred to as "dim" and "low". The room of the hotel is done in colors of over cooked veal. The bulbs are weak and twinkle drearily. There are 100s of these expressions throughout the novel. Brookner, is painting a picture for us. Brookner was an art historian before she became (at age 53) a novelist. The use of all these colors is very much part of the tone of the book. I can see why some find her work almost oppressive.

There is a kind of a surprise ending at the close of Hotel du Lac. I will not give it away other but I really liked it and was a bit shocked I admit.

I enjoyed this book. It is a work of very subtle intelligence. The descriptions of the hotel are really wonderfully done. The people we meet in the hotel are interesting and it is fun to get to know them.

Friday, July 22, 2011

PRIZES and the Final Recap

  
Thanks to all of you who participated in International Anita Brookner Day. I had a lot of fun seeing what you all came up with and was gratified that so many of you had a positive experience. And I still have hope for those who weren't instant fans. Many of the qualms that some had with the Anita Brookner novel they read and reviewed didn't stem from Brookner's writing ability but rather from disappointment in her characters. And therein lies my reason for hope. When I first read Brookner I was not just disappointed with ther characters I was frustrated as all get out. I mean really, who are these passive, depressed people. But I found that those people kind grew on me. I never wanted to be them, and still don't, but I became fascinated in reading about them.  This isn't to suggest that those of you who wrote less than positive reviews are all going to become fans, but it is to suggest that your journey with Anita may not be over.

And speaking of that journey. Anytime you post a review of a Brookner novel, just let me know and I will include it on the IABD blog and archive.

On to the prizes:

Best Review: Danilo Abacahin
He doesn't blog, but based on this review he should. I particularly liked the way he organized his review around the reactions he had recorded in his diary while he read Undue Influence.

Best non-Review: Peta Mayer
Peta's list of 10 Things to Expect from a Brookner Novel was insightful and funny. It confirmed some things I already thought (the walking) and made me ponder some things I hadn't (eros).

Best Picture of a Pet Reading Brookner: Julia at Pages of Julia
Of course all of the pet pictures were cute as can be. But the one that really stood out was Julia's. Her cute pooches are clearly Brookner fans.


Participation Prize: Ted at Bookeywookey

Special Prize for inspring the judges to come up with another prize: Jack at The Windy Sea of Land
Simon suggested that Jack deserved a prize for starting a blog just to join in IABD. I totally agreed and so we created another prize category just for him.

Winners:
You have until August 8th to pick a paperback (any paperback, it doesn't have to be Anita Brookner) and email me with your choice and your mailing address. onmyporch [at] hotmail [dot] com

If you are outside the US you can make your choice from The Book Depository. If you are in the US you can choose from TBD or Barnes and Noble.


The Recap
We ended up with 33 reviews of 14 novels. Did you ever see that skit on Sesame Street where everyone ended up bringing potato salad to the picnic. Well, Hotel du Lac was the potato salad of IABD.

The Bay of Angels (2001)
Michelle Foong
Wendy Mayer

A Closed Eye (1991)
Bookeywookey
My Porch

Family and Friends (1985)
The Truth About Lies

Hotel du Lac (1984)
Another Cookie Crumbles
Boston Bibliophile
Fig and Thistle
Novel Insights
Pages of Julia Blog
Savidge Reads
Stuck in a Book
The Reading Life

Incidents in the Rue Laugier (1995)
Books and Chocolate
Erich Mayer
Roses Over a Cottage Door

Leaving Home (2005)
A Book Sanctuary
Luvvie's Musings

Lewis Percy (1989)
Bibliolathas

Look at Me (1983)
Nonsuch Book
Savidge Reads

The Next Big Thing (2002)
Luvvie's Musings

A Private View (1994)
This Windy Sea of Land

Providence (1982)
My Porch (May 15, 2010)
My Porch (July 15, 2011)

The Rules of Engagement (2003)
Gaskella
Park Benches & Bookends
Silencing the Bell
Telecommuter Talk

A Start in Life (1981)
Citizen Reader
My Porch
Savidge Reads

Undue Influence (1999)
Danilo Abacahin

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Review: Hotel du Lac

The following review of Hotel du Lac was written by Amanda at Fig and Thistle

Although I missed Anita Brookner day, I still wanted to post my thoughts on Hotel du Lac. This is my first Brookner book. I’ve always intended to read something by Brookner, but I think I was daunted by the number of books. I didn’t know where to start. I picked Hotel du Lac because it was a Booker winner.

Hotel du Lac is what I would call a quiet novel. There is a plot, but the strength of the book lies in the characters’ unspoken thoughts, observations, and motivations. The novel begins with Edith Hope — a famed romance novelist — settling in to a Swiss hotel after a socially embarrassing incident. The hotel is sparsely peopled, but the handful of hotel residents fuel the humor, emotion, and, of course, move along the plot.

This slim volume — under 200 pages — clips along at a nice pace,the wit is sharp, and the characters are intriguing…. but…… I wouldn’t say I like it. I think I certainly like Brookner’s writing. She seems to be a sort of darker Barbara Pym with bits of Elizabeth Taylor cooked in and a dash of Iris Murdoch; you know, quintessentially British and witty, but with darker emotions and an elegiac tone. Of course, I’m basing my assessment of Brookner’s writing style from one book and I should really read all of them before I start making author-recipes. I simply didn’t care for any of the characters; Edith Hope seems cold and I have a difficult time sympathizing her situation and all the other characters are obnoxious, shallow, and/or calculating.

For all my character dislikes, I simply cannot stop raving over the writing. In addition to great dialogue and some marvelous descriptive passages, I found myself really loving the phrases that seemed to pop-out. For example, the hotel corridor is described as being “vibrant with absence” (pg.13). I remember pausing my reading to mull over that phrase. It is such an apt description of that sensation that strikes out with emptiness when one is in a typically bustling place. I can certainly say that the academic library I work at is vibrant with absence in the summer months!

So yes, certainly more Brookner in my future.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Review: Hotel du Lac

Another Cookie Crumbles offers us her thoughts on Hotel du Lac.

Belated birthday wishes to Anita Brookner, and a day late, but a happy International Anita Brookner Day to the rest of you.

Some time back, I decided to re-read Anita Brookner’s Booker-winning Hotel du Lac a few months back, as part of Sarah’s Not A Rat’s Chance In Hell, and last week seemed to be the right time to read it (what with 16th July being IABD, hosted by Thomas at my Porch and Savidge Reads).

I enjoyed Hotel du Lac the first time I read it, when I was still in my teens – the pathos, the despair, the richness of characters and the fact that it is set in Switzerland. Switzerland is, by far, my favourite country in the world, and I intend to live there at some point in my life. It just feels like… home.

The re-read, however, wasn’t quite the same experience. I felt myself getting slightly more frustrated with Edith’s character, and her complete lack of proactivity. It was almost like she was resigned to her fate, and was letting life pass her by; letting other people pull her strings.

Edith, an established writer, has been exiled to a hotel by Lake Geneva. Her friends have advised her to “disappear for a decent length of time and come back older, wiser and properly sorry,” for an act that she has committed, albeit it isn’t quite clear what that act is, in the opening pages of the book. In the hotel, she meets a myriad of characters, each seeking a break from reality, and as she gets to know them better, we (as readers) get to know our protagonist better as well.
What it had to offer was a mild form of sanctuary, an assurance of privacy, and the protection and the discretion that attach themselves to blamelessness.
Edith is in love with David, a married man, but her affair with him is not the reason behind this exile. And, it’s not her absolution. She writes letters to David regularly, and yearns for his presence, which doesn’t seem forthcoming. She attempts to return to her writing in the hotel, but the characters that surround her distract her – mostly, the women, but there is the one man who catches her eye? Or, does she catch his eye?
The women in the hotel, which is indeed very selective of its guests, include the extravagant superficial Puseys whose interests most involve shopping and living an expensive lifestyle; Monica, who seems enviously condescending of the Puseys, as she spends her days sharing coffee, ice-cream and cakes with her dog; and Madame De Bonneuil, an old lady, who’s been abandoned by her son after his marriage. Then there’s Mr. Neville, a self-proclaimed romantic who thinks he’s good for Edith…

A lot of the book focuses on women, and how their stature evolves with age and marriage; the importance of marriage and of having the significant other. Of course, this is predominantly due to the time in which the book was set – possibly the 70s – but subjecting all women to such… banality… was what got me slightly annoyed. A woman’s place in society should be incidental to her marriage, not a result of it – that’s my verdict, but then again, I live in the twenty-first century, so it is easy for me to say that.
The company of their own sex, Edith reflected, was what drove many women into marriage.
Brookner does pull out a couple of good twists though, which almost saves Edith’s character, for she does come across as a passenger in her own life, not an active participant – definitely not the driver. It was well-written and slightly humorous, but, despite being under two hundred pages, oh-so-slow, that it almost feels like a book you want to curl up with, a glass of red wine in one hand, and the Moonlight Sonata playing on the stereo.

Thought I’d share some gorgeous pictures of places that have been mentioned in this book as well… it really is a place I would recommend to go to, to get some respite from the world.

lake_geneva
Oh, and do let me know which Brookner should I read next? Just go chronologically, or… which are your favourites?

Review: The Next Big Thing/Making Things Better

The following review of The Next Big Thing/Making Things Better is from Alex at Luvvie's Musings.
Jacob Wrestling with the Angel
Eugene Delacroix
L'Eglise Saint Sulpice, Paris
Photo credit
 Isn't this rather beautiful? This painting features in Making Things Better aka The Next Big Thing.

It was longlisted for the Booker Prize in 2002.

I was a bit excited about reading it as this is the first Anita Brookner I've read that features a male in the lead role, so to speak.

Julius Herz is retired and reflecting on his life to date. It could be argued that he is in his dotage. He is ailing physically and mourning the lack of someone to look after him in his old age.

Julius did marry once - to a cheerful, practical sort of woman - Josie - but cramped living conditions, which included his demanding and morose parents, spelled the death-knell for any hope of proper intimacy.

Brookner's novels may be slim but they're never an easy read. She seems to delight in tackling the difficult subjects like old age and loneliness that other writers might choose to give a wide berth.

Not our Ms Brookner. She plunges in where angels fear to tread and paints a sobering picture of something that most of us will face - decline and decay - and possibly regret. As my father regularly intones in lines attributed to Bette Davis I think - "Old age isn't for sissies."

Like many of Brookner's characters, Julius was an obedient offspring. Not necessarily the favoured son by any stretch of the imagination...but the one that tidied up and tried to make things better. When his brother Freddy, a promising concert violinist starts to lose the plot, Julius is the only one who visits him in the Sanitorium and witnesses his decline.

Late in life, Julius is given a chance at freedom. His parents having passed on, a distant acquaintance, who helped the family re-settle in London from war-torn Europe, bequeaths a significant proportion of his estate to Julius which frees him from the necessity to work or worry about a roof over his head.

But is it too late? "He was not trained for freedom, that was the problem, had not been brought up for it." Poor Julius feels so overcome with the challenge of freedom he suffers "a feeling of unreality, so enveloping as to constitute a genuine malaise." A quite amusing dialogue ensues during an appointment with his doctor where Julius earnestly asks if he could be suffering a similar experience to Freud's on the Acropolis. The Doctor ignores the question of existentialism and pursues a comfortable line of enquiry - blood pressure.

Friends and acquaintances suggest that what Julius needs is a holiday. In his obliging manner, he attempts to re-visit the joys of his youth, when he sampled the delights of brief getaways in Paris with obliging young women. It doesn't take long to get to Paris from Waterloo...but the people have changed and of course Julius has too. He feels his age and decides to return home earlier than planned. Before he leaves, he pops into Saint Sulpice to check out Delacroix's painting. I'll leave you to read the book and find out the epiphany or new reading that Julius takes away with him from the viewing.

I always feel a wee bit more edu-muckated after I've read Brookner. I learn new words - this book brought me meretricious, which I always forget means "befitting a harlot - or showily attractive" - a most useful word - must use it more often. Then of course there is fiacre - which you might think is something to do with a fiasco - but no, it is a French four-wheeled cab - never enough cabs I say. Finally inanition.- emptiness esp of nourishment i.e. how I felt earlier this week after a particularly nasty tummy bug.

In conclusion I have to say that on the whole I found The Next Big Thing a bit of struggle - rather like Jacob wrestling with the Angel. There is a very telling line early on when Julius forms a friendship with a younger man - a co-beneficiary of the estate bequeathed to them. They dine together on a regular basis "Herz had little experience of dealing with younger people but understood instinctively that one kept out of their lives as much as possible but was curious and indulgent towards them....It was a matter of discretion not to talk about oneself. To do so would be to shock Simmonds with the prospect of what awaited him."

I guess I'm not shocked. More gloomily depressed. One doesn't want to shoot the messenger of course, but it has to be said that Brookner fare puts you off old age, so she does.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Six Degrees of Anita Bacon, I mean Anita Brookner

In the lead up to IABD I was making all kinds of tenuous connections between my posts and Anita Brookner. After reading Peta's much deeper analysis of connections between Brideshead Revisited and Anita Brookner, I  began thinking about the Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon game.

Are you familiar with the Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon game? To play, all you have to do is link any celebrity to Kevin Bacon within six degrees. I read an article years ago in The New Yorker that posited that this game works with Kevin Bacon because he has been in such a variety of projects and had not been typecast. The article stated that someone who made many more films and was far more famous, like John Wayne, won't necessarily fare as well in the Six Degrees game because their were work was more specialized.

So I thought how many degrees of separation between Kevin Bacon and Anita Brookner. Using Diana Quick from the Brideshead post as a possible starting point, it was far easier than I thought it would  be to connect these two dots. I bet there are other connections as well. Perhaps this will be a regular feature.

Kevin Bacon


Was in Where the Truth Lies with Colin Firth


Who was in (the sappy) Love Actually with Bill Nighy


Who was in a 27-year relationship with Diana Quick


Who voiced an audiobook of Anita Brookner's Undue Influence


 That's only 5 degrees of separation. Can you do better?


Review: A Private View

The following review was written by Jack at This Windy Sea of Land. He actually started his blog just so he could participate in IABD. Jack is an English literature student in Cambridge, England--and I can't believe he became a Brookner fan at 16.

I’ve never reviewed a book before, but I have been, if not hardcore, at least an interested Anita Brookner fan ever since my first encounter with Hotel du Lac (1984) at my mother’s recommendation when I was 16.  These books, however, as almost anyone who has read one would admit, are not for everyone: critics often accuse her of writing the same book again and again. What is more, critics often accuse her of writing depressing books, about a lonely woman leading a non-eventful life (coincidentally aging between books at about the same rate as the author herself), pondering her loneliness for 200 pages in magnificent detail, again and again. To quote the immensely witty and self-aware opening line of Incidents in the Rue Laugier (1995), these women “read a lot, sighed a lot, and went to bed early”. And to be fair to these critics, this is not far off the mark.  In an interview with Mick Brown (The Daily Telegraph, 2009) after the release of Brookner’s most recent book, Strangers (2009), Brown retells an anecdote told by one of Brookner’s friends:

Julian Barnes remembers lunching with Brookner and asking what she was working on at the moment. 'And she said, "I've just finished a novel." There was a perfectly judged pause, then she added, "It's about a lonely woman…" And gave me a very direct glance.'  
“I think one keeps on writing the same book over and over again,” she said. Her own understanding removes all power from those who take the easy route of sneering at the superficially banal nature of her (non-existent) plots. Brookner writes to “fill time”; she is the lady amateur. This self-awareness, however, forces a reader to address her work on a different level. A reader must take into account the intelligence of the author- leading to an understanding that Brookner is beyond reproach both because of her modesty and because of her sheer talent. Her pages are filled with poetic prose that, although often compared to Henry James, reminds me equally of Virginia Woolf; her clean lines and careful structure chart the lives of women (and occasionally men) who seem always to live in the dream like bubble of their own minds paradoxically separated from the outside world by divisions as clear and strong as the boundaries in a classical garden.

A Private View (1994), however, is somewhat different; for one thing George Bland, our recently retired and occasionally infuriating, protagonist is a man. Bland even has a friend he feels comfortable with; Louise, his one love affair who married another man but who, now a widow, calls him every Sunday night; phones calls of comfort, if not of passion. However, George had planned to spend his retirement travelling with his closest friend, Putnam, who died before the great plan could be realised. At last, one may think, he is lonely! It is definitely an Anita Brookner novel! Yet in the novel’s plot a gulf is exposed between this novel and Brookner’s others.

Katy Gibb appears in Bland’s block of flats. A young and, one may even say, feisty woman claiming to know the Dunlops, Bland’s neighbours, currently away on holiday. They’ve promised, she says, that Katy could stay in their flat. Bland, the guardian of the Dunlop’s keys reluctantly, and perhaps foolishly hands, them over, wishing only for the quiet and secluded life of any other Brookner character.  Katy, however, is less willing to go away. She infiltrates Bland’s life one step at a time; she calls him George in a gross breach of the rules of address that dominate so many character relations in the novel, she invites herself round to his flat for tea. Through this a reader eventually learns that Katy is vying for more than his company; rather she seeks his large and comfortable flat. She is after premises in which to establish her new-age health business. It is in this aspect that we see the greatest distinction between this novel and Brookner’s other recollections of melancholy: whereas her characters normally leave home, heading usually to France or Switzerland to read a lot, sigh a lot and go to bed early, Bland has his life invaded. He does not flee and is forced further into his own flat rather than, as is usual, out of it. Like an Elizabethan house, greater privacy is found further inside as his external rooms are invaded by new-comers until only one room truly remains: “his bedroom, his fortress.”

It would perhaps not be too far to see both Bland’s flat and Katy as two sides of a coin: one comes to represent Bland’s mundane, comfortable and routine existence, the other a lust for adventure and travel as Katy seems to possess the complete freedom to journey that Bland had hoped for in his retirement plan. He had hoped to journey to the Far East, with Putnam, “by the slowest route they could devise”. Instead he falls in what he believes to be love. Asking for pecuniary investment for her new business venture Katy declares: “After all, I’m the potential, aren’t I? I’d be the investment.” She is just that. The potential; the potential life that Bland could lead, alone and carefree. It might not even be too far to suggest that she is the potential of an empty flat. The Dunlops’ absence creates new life, albeit unintentionally. Katy comes to be the spirit of freedom itself and, to a certain extent, Bland seeks to be her. Caught up with her petulant mystique of extravagant eating, so out of line with “the instinctive frugality of those who live alone, financially secure though never extravagant” (Leaving Home, 2005),and with her rude questions (“Anywhere exciting?”), Bland reaches the most infuriating heights of desire ever captured in novel form. To use an ancient cliché, he is in love not with Katy (who he states he would feel embarrassed undressing in front of) but with the idea of Katy. In reflections back to his mother’s invasion of his stuffy childhood bedroom- going in when he was away, shutting his window and smoking, filling his private space with her essence- Bland sees the similarities between the two women. Both invade his space and, to a certain extent, “bring him up”; Katy educates him. However, as his mother dragged him from university to work in the, metaphorically significant, cardboard-box factory, Katy too confines him. Within his generation. She pities his age and, as such, forbids him access to her free way of life. However, it is perhaps in Katy that we see the “standard” Brookner heroine, rootless and lonely. It is maybe for her that we should feel pity. She seeks the security of a “room of her own” rather than the borrowed accommodation of absent “friends”. Bland, however, sees only her current life and longs for it as both parties seem desperate, although they hide it, for what the other has.

Bland, in love, recognises, but refuses to admit, the inadequacies of the, actually non-existent, relationship. Neither partner considers the other their equal. Forced into greater seclusion Bland recognises the importance of his relationship to the world. Thus his dream is over, rightly crushed by pragmatism. Katy, denied Bland’s flat- denied Bland’s place in the world-, is to return to America. In keeping with the tried and tested Brookner technique, the net result is zero. No change. “Nothing had changed but everything had changed”, Zoe’s maxim from The Bay of Angels, holds true. Bland, as his name suggests, does not rock the boat and stays within the confines of his regular existence. “Now I must live my life as I have always lived it”, he declares to himself. This is not to say, however, that he remains as internalised as his contact with Katy had made him. There is no longer any pressure from youth or from his own mind, as in other Brookner novels, to be a complete recluse. To Louise he asks in the closing line of the book, “What would you say to a cruise? In the Spring?”. The novel ends with hope; it ends not with death but the potential for new life. Not the wild life of Katy Gibb but a life more appropriate to Bland’s place in society and his stage of life.

It doesn’t really feel like I’m giving the ending away; this is what one expects from a Brookner novel. The Dunlops’ return to their flat over the corridor signals the end of a purely internal and mental adventure as Bland faces his own life and his own choices reflected in the elusive Katy Gibb. Bland is literally forced into his comfort zone, his bedroom, as the outside world (death, other people) encroaches on his own personal reality. It is within himself that he sees the choices he could have made as he almost acknowledges the Katy Gibb residing in himself:

For a brief moment he was afforded a glimpse into the heart of hedonism, something ancient, pagan, selfish. He saw it as movement, headlong rush, carelessness, the true expression of the essential ego.
Ultimately, however, this glimpse confirms Bland’s understanding of his own existence.

His life, in retrospect, seemed very long and quite uneventful. Yet it had been occupied with struggle, with the no doubt modest but nevertheless taxing struggle of finding a place for himself in the world.  
Nothing may happen in any of Anita Brookner’s novels, but they are not all the same; each “hero” must struggle to find their own, distinct, reality.
The following review of Incidents in the Rue Laugier was written by Karen K at Books and Chocolate. (I could go for some chocolate right now. It has been a few weeks.)

Two challenges fulfilled by one 240 page book!  For Paris in July, I had really intended to try and finish some of the books on my burgeoning TBR shelves; however, I've heard so many great things about Anita Brookner I couldn't pass up participating in International Anita Brookner Day, sponsored by Thomas of My Porch.  My discovery of this novel, set in both France and England,  seemed serendipitous.

The book begins with a prologue.  After her death, a young woman finds some intriguing items that belonged to her, including a notebook and a beautiful silk kimono.  The book that follows is how she imagines her mother's life.

Maud Gonthier is the only child of bourgeois parents in Dijon, France.  Her father dies when she is a small child in the 1950s, and her mother struggles to keep them financially afloat without appearing poor. She hopes to get the attractive Maud married off early.  Maud's aunt married very well, and her mother hopes to unite her with her cousin Xavier, or one of Xavier's friends.  On a summer visit at her aunt's country house, young Maud falls head over heels in love with Tyler, a dashing and wealthy young Englishman who has the world at his feet.  Sadly, things don't turn out exactly as Maud hopes -- instead the hunky Tyler, she winds up with the solid but unexciting Edward Harrison, another young Englishman dragged to the country by Tyler.

Initially, this seems like one of those novels in which Not Much Happens.  At first I really didn't much like the story or the characters, who seemed really cold and calculated, especially Maud's mother.  I was resolved to stick with it, and the payoff was worth it.  This book is a really great character study, and it's really made me think about marriages and relationships and True Love.  And disappointment -- a lot of characters in this book are disappointed with their lot in life.

I'm beginning to understand why Thomas raves about Anita Brookner, another author to add to my burgeoning Must Read List.

Aack. I knew I forgot a pet.

I knew I was leaving someone out of the Brookner Pet Cavalcade.

How could I forget Chip from Brisbane? He will be added to the cavalcade and eligible for a prize.

Chip contemplates eating the page once he has read it.
Luvvie's Musings

Review: Look at Me

The following review of Look at Me was written by Frances at Nonsuch Book.

Look

Jonathan Yardley picked an Anita Brookner title for me for IABD. Well, not personally, but the process of choosing just one proved too daunting so I turned to searching through the opinions of others to find a title that was a bit more than just the piercingly perceptive depictions of loneliness for which Brookner is so well known. And then I found a piece from the Washington Post in 2005, one of those Yardley contributions I enjoy so much where he reconsiders a "notable and/or neglected book(s) from the past." Where he looks beyond the psychic isolation of Look at Me protagonist, Frances Hinton, to the thoughtless treatment she receives at the hands of careless people, people Yardley compares to Daisy and Tom from The Great Gatsby. "It was all very careless and confused," Fitzgerald writes. "They were careless people, Tom and Daisy - they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated into their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made."

Frances leads a quiet life contained within an inherited flat with inherited possessions with a housekeeper that she also did not choose, and ventures out for few things other than her work in a small medical research library. When her life is touched by the beautiful and fun-loving Alix and her equally appealing husband Nick who works as as a doctor at the same institute as Frances, she comes alive with the possibilities of life and permits this couple to treat her as an object of entertainment and an occasional funder of their merriment. They pair her with James, another doctor from work, with whom her sensibilities mesh, and her contentment elevates her out of loneliness. Until the bright and beautiful cease to find her amusing anymore.

Even as Frances recognizes the casual disdain with which she is treated, she still seeks to preserve her inclusion in the social circle of her new friends.
I could have been different, I think. Once I had great confidence, great cheerfulness; I did not question my purpose or the purpose of others. All that had gone, and I had done my best to replace it. I had become diligent instead of spontaneous; I had become an observer when I saw that I was not to be allowed to participate. I had refused to be pitiable. I had never once said, Look at me. Now, it seemed, I must make one more effort, one more attempt to make myself viable. And If I succeeded, I might be granted one more opportunity to do it all over again. I did not dare to think what would happen if I failed.
So what she requires from this relationship with the careless is not to possess them, to become them but to regain possession of herself. In an odd way, she uses them as much as they use her especially in her frequent relegation of the cast of characters around her to mere subject material for her writing. But she does this only from desperation in an attempt to claim a voice in a life that has not readily afforded her one.
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, of thoughtlessness. For the writer there is no oblivion. Only endless memory.
The observations of self and others flow in an exhaustive flow of pent-up release. An observant mind that finds no occasion to share her thoughts freely except on paper. Juxtaposed against the excesses of speech and action in the careless, this is a jarring reminder to allow oneself to hear the unsaid, to see the unseen certainly not out of misplaced pity but in order to connect to a broader consciousness. A stunning and elegant book.

The Brookner Pet Cavalcade

When I was thinking up prizes for IABD I thought a photo contest might be in order. But I thought such a contest needed a little, um, focus. And so the pictures of your pet reading Brookner category was born. And the irony is not lost on me. I can't really think if there were ever any pets in an Anita Brookner novel--I rather doubt it--but doesn't it seem like her characters could all use the unrequited love of a pet?

So, here are the entries. If I am missing yours, please let me know. I feel like there is at least one more swirling around out there that I am forgetting.

My favorite blogging Boarder Collie, Deacon dresses up to read Brookner.
Roses Over a Cottage Door

This species of bear is generally fun lovinng but is also known for its quiet intensity.
Rupert is clearly mesmermized by Verity's copy of The Bay of Angels.

Unlike the typical Brookner character, Charles has an appetite.
The Reading Life

Ritchey and Hops obviously read at different speeds. But it looks like
they are both close readers. No doubt they assist Julia with her reviews.

Sandy comes to a particularly good bit in The Bay of Angels.
Michelle Foong

Roger takes a break from Lewis Percy
Bibliolathas
Chip contemplates eating the page once he has read it.
Luvvie's Musings


And, of course, Lucy. (And her indifference to Providence.)

Review: Bay of Angels

Despite her self-doubt, Michelle Foong from Selangor, Malaysia has provided a review of The Bay of Angels as good as any blogger.
 
Hope I am not too late in submitting my entry! Just managed to finish my first Brookner two hours ago, phew.... I am not a fast reader plus I lack the discipline to stick to one book before dipping into another (I get distracted easily by the lure of other books calling out from the shelves.... )
 
Anyway, I am so very glad that you and Simon had set a date for this event, thus forcing me to somehow get down to finishing the book in a week! That's a record of sorts for me :p

Okay, enough preamble, let's get to the book.
 
Given a choice, I would have liked to start of my acquaintance with Ms. Brookner through Hotel du Lac. Not simply because it was a prize winning book, and that would somehow suggest a promise to showcase Brookner in one of her best forms, but because I was genuinely interested in the themes the storyline seemed to offer. But as providence would have it, I stumbled upon an almost pristine copy of The Bay of Angels at a books clearance sale and got it for only RM1.20 (that's equivalent to about 0.40 USD!) Although the blurb on the back of the book didn't quite interest me and it wasn't the kind of story that I would go for, the cover of the book certainly did otherwise (and let's also not forget about the price .....)

And so, that is how it came to be that my first personal encounter with Ms. Brookner's brilliance, is by way of the Baie des Anges.

I am not a blogger. Neither am I good at writing reviews. Therefore, I shall leave it to those who are better skilled and more eloquent to do so for the book. They will probably do better justice to the book than I can. What I would like to share instead, are my thoughts and the reading experience it gave me. It was probably not merely by chance that I ended up being "made" to read The Bay of Angels despite my initial feelings about how the storyline would not appeal to me much. I say this because once I had started reading, I began to realise how well I could relate to the feelings, the thoughts and the emotions of Zoe, the protagonist in the book.

Like Zoe, I too have a clear understanding of what it feels like to be alone. To find comfort and safety in solitude. To lead a life that seems "not the norm" and maybe even "pitiable" or lacking, in the eyes of those whose value systems are different from ours, those who equate happiness and contentment with what the world in general defines it to be. The ability to put on the right masks at the right time and place, in order to blend in and not invite any further unwelcomed scrutiny. And like Zoe, I too have felt the constant antagonistic struggle between the trappings and burdens of familial duties and the yearning for freedom. But unlike Zoe, who in her own words "has no belief in God", I do. And it is because of this, that I can be alone, and yet know that I am not alone. I can have little, but with contentment, yet find that it is great gain. The fear of having no witness in her life as the days go by, the fear where "one would be more alone in death than one had ever been in life..."  as she ponders on the mystery of death while recalling the preoccupied expression on her dying mother's face which would haunt her for ever, all of which I believe would have been very different for Zoe, had she had a personal relationship with God. Reading this book has made me realise what my faith and belief does for me, in terms of coping with the demands and pressures of everyday living. I thank God for providing me with deep reserves, from which I could draw upon freely, and not just have my own resources to rely on. I wish that Zoe had known that for herself. I wish the same too for all who are struggling through life's tough terrains thinking that they have to shoulder it all upon themselves to make it through. They don't. There is a choice. 

I really appreciate and love the subtlety and sensitivity in which the many difficult themes and issues are handled and portrayed in the writing. The cleverness and beauty of putting into few words that which speaks volumes. That which has been left unsaid does not remain silent. Ms. Brookner has proven that the less can indeed be more. And I have a feeling that I will be looking out for more of her works from here on, after getting off on what I would say is, a good start. :)

So, thanks again, for having this event, and for introducing me to a writer that definitely deserves to be more widely read.

A Brookner Birthday Bio

JoAnn at Lakeside Musing offers this great mini-bio of Anita Brookner for those that don't know much about the author.
 
From Writer's Almanac for July 16, 2011:

It's the birthday of the novelist who said, "I feel I could get into the Guinness Book of Records as the world's loneliest, most miserable woman." That's Anita Brookner (books by this author), born in London (1928). She writes novels about lonely characters, so everyone wrongly assumes that she is writing about herself. She said: "Well, I am a spinster. I make no apologies for that. But I'm neither unhappy nor lonely. I am interested in people who live on their own, people who get left behind, who drop through the net, but who survive. They seem to me quite heroic characters sometimes, but no one inquires about them because they're people who do without much conversation, whose loudest moments are internal."

She did have a lonely childhood; she had no brothers and sisters, and her parents were unhappy. Her father was an unsuccessful businessman. Her mother had given up a successful career as a singer to marry her father and was never sure that it was a good decision. Anita loved reading and art. Her father gave her two Dickens novels every year for her birthday and Christmas until she had read every single one. The Brookners lived near an art museum, and she spent every Sunday afternoon there looking at paintings.

She went to college and graduate school to study art history, which worried her parents; they were concerned that she would never find a husband if she became an academic. When she insisted anyway and got offered a scholarship to study in Paris, her parents disowned her. But she loved Paris. She said: "I lived in a hotel, which is an ideal existence. You have no responsibilities. You eat out; you don't make your bed. You go off to work every morning; and I was completely immersed in the work. I've never been so happy."

She moved back to Britain and became an art historian and professor. For many years, she was a popular and respected teacher, but when she was in her 50s, she started to worry about what she would do after she retired. She liked to read fiction, so she decided to try writing a novel. Her first novel, A Start in Life (1981), was published when she was 53. After that, for many years she published exactly one new novel every summer. She writes her novels out in longhand, then types them up, and writes only one draft. Overall, she has published 24 novels in the past 30 years. She said, "My real work was as a teacher and an academic, and I loved it. This is really just filling the time."

Her novels include Hotel du Lac (1984), which won the Booker Prize; Undue Influence (1999); The Rules of Engagement (2003); and most recently, Strangers (2009).

She said, "I suppose what one wants really is ideal company and books are ideal company."

Saturday, July 16, 2011

24 reviews of 12 books and counting...

IABD is off to a great start. Here is a run down of the reviews we have so far.

The Bay of Angels (2001)
Wendy Mayer

A Closed Eye (1991)
Bookeywookey
My Porch

Family and Friends (1985)
The Truth About Lies

Hotel du Lac (1984)
Boston Bibliophile
Novel Insights
Pages of Julia Blog
Savidge Reads
Stuck in a Book

Incidents in the Rue Laugier (1995)
Erich Mayer
Roses Over a Cottage Door

Leaving Home (2005)
A Book Sanctuary
Luvvie's Musings

Lewis Percy (1989)
Bibliolathas

Look at Me (1983)
Savidge Reads

Providence (1982)
My Porch

The Rules of Engagement (2003)
Gaskella
Park Benches & Bookends
Silencing the Bell
Telecommuter Talk

A Start in Life (1981)
Citizen Reader
My Porch
Savidge Reads

Undue Influence (1999)
Danilo Abacahin


The following Brookner titles await their IABD reviews, either today or in the future...So for those of you who enjoyed your Brookner experience you might want to consider helping us fill in the blanks in the future. I will eventually re-read and review all of them, but this isn't just about me, so keep 'em coming.

Altered States (1996)

Brief Lives (1990)

Falling Slowly (1998)

A Family Romance (1993)

Fraud (1992)

A Friend from England (1987)

Latecomers (1988)

A Misalliance (1986)

The Next Big Thing/Making Things Better (2002)

A Private View (1994)

Strangers (2009)

Visitors (1997)

Review: The Debut/A Start in Life

   
The following review of A Start in Life/The Debut was written by Thomas at My Porch.

You probably know by now that I have already read all of Brookner's 24 novels, having finished up the last two last year. So now I get to go back and read them all again, except this time I am going to read them in chronological order. I was tempted for a bit to read a few for IABD that others haven't reviewed so I could help fill in some of the gaps in the reviews. But my OCD kicked in and insisted I follow chron order.

I don't do much re-reading so it is a bit of a novel (ha) experience for me to go back and start from the beginning. If there is any author whose work fares well, perhaps even better, on a second read, I am finding that Anita Brookner is that author. Perhaps the most difficult part of reviewing a re-read is that it kind of requires me to dig a little deeper than I normally do in my reviews. But that could turn out to be a hot mess. Here it goes.

By now it is almost cliche in a review of The Debut (A Start in Life outside the U.S.) to quote the opening sentence:
Dr. Weiss, at forty, knew that her life had been ruined by literature.
In my humble opinion, one of the great opening lines of the 20th century. (Yet in a way, it isn't very 20th century in sentiment, is it?) Slightly less often, reviews of The Debut go on to quote what comes after the opening line:
In her toughtful and academic way, she put it down to her faulty moral education, which dictated, through the conflicting, but in this one instance, united agencies of her mother and father, that she ponder the careers of Anna Karenina and Emma Bovary, but that she emulate those of David Copperfield and Little Dorritt.
But then where do I go from there? Perhaps say something trite about the fact that Brookner's work is highly literate and that she is nothing if not a booklovers novelist. Done and done.

Actress mother, bookseller father far too into their own lives to bother much with their only child. Old world grandmother does her best to make a pleasant home life for Ruth, but really what kind of life is it for a child? Immature, self-involved, vain parents and an aging grandmother. No wonder Ruth turns to books for sustenance and life lessons. She says of her first encounters with Dickens that "The moral universe was unveiled." With books standing in loco parentis it is no wonder that Ruth looks to books for comfort when her grandmother passes away...literally:
She took her grandmother's hand and kissed it, then raised the book to her cheek and held it there for a little while...
With little more than books to show her the way it is no surprise that Ruth takes on the role of parenting her parents fairly early in life. When her teacher at school wants to see her parents her mother is less than accomodating. But by this time Ruth knows what it will take to motivate her mother.
For once she learned cunning. "They all talk about you at school," she said carefully. "they ask me lots of questions. They still talk about you in Lady Windermere's Fan. And you've never been there. You or Daddy. I think you should come once. These things make a difference.
And then reverting back to girlhood:
Cunning deserted her. "And it is my future we're talking about."
And so they go to school and so then does Ruth go to university. But even in that her mother's selfishness wins out. Although she shows little interest in Ruth's life, her mother insists that she not even try for Oxford or Cambridge because she wants her close at hand.

Like so many socially awkward people, Ruth's world and personality open up at university. She still lives a life of books--more so than ever--but makes friends, moves to Paris to study, has romantic assignations, and seems to be looking forward to life in Paris. But it isn't long before her parent's to wield their selfish heads to recall her to London to keep an eye on ailing mother so that philandering father can continue his affair untroubled by who is taking care of his wife. Even her marriage that ultimately results out of her return home doesn't quite put her on a trajectory as fulfilling as the...

God, I am beginning to bore myself. That doesn't bode well for you dear reader. This review sounds half-baked. I am not sure what I am getting at. Part of the problem for an amateur like myself is that I want to say something as clever as Anita Brookner's prose. Before I started re-reading her novels--although I loved them--I felt the need to qualify my love. I would warn people that not much happens. That they are depressing. That they all kind of blend together. But you know what? My re-reading experience thus far (I have also re-read her second novel Providence), has really proven to me that my enthusiasm for Brookner doesn't require qualifiers. Sure, they won't be for everyone, but her books are far too good and her writing far too deep and illuminating for me to be apologizing for her work. They really are brilliant. And this my friends is why I suck at reviewing them properly. How can anyone try and describe what Brookner has distilled into 192 crystalline, almost poetic, pages of human emotion?  I certainly can't.

P.S. I think the original title A Start in Life is far better than the U.S. title. A debut suggests a well prepared for entrance into the world. Whereas Ruth just seems to slide into things with little help from anyone and with no fanfare. Plus a start in life can refer to many stages in her life: her formative years whe she got her actual start in life; her university life in which she manages to get a start in her professional life; getting started in what the reader hopes will be her life in Paris; and finally as she gets started in the non-Paris life that will no doubt see her through to the end.

Review: The Rules of Engagement

Martine of Silencing the Bell didn't exactly have a love affair with The Rules of Engagement.

I went to Chorlton library and found Rules of Engagement, it was the only one of her books they had. It turns out I should have popped down to Didsbury, where they seem to have a much better choice of Anita Brookner novels.

I am not sure that they will want me to join in when I say how bored I was by this book. I mean there is introspection and there is introspection ... and this book takes it all to a whole new level (or is that depth?) I mean no wonder this woman spent so much time worrying about her motivation and her 'relationships' and her emotional reactions and what people thought ... because she had *absolutely* nothing else in her life. And the real trouble with all this introspection was that the woman was so devoid of personality that she never thought anything interesting. She never once said anything meaningful to anyone or had a real conversation about anything or really showed any interest in another human being or interest in anything beyond her own thoughts (ok she read a few books, but a very limited selection and only thought of them in terms of how they reflected back her own thinking or opinions.) She is never really happy, sometimes contented, never has a strong sense of attachment to another person, even her supposed affection for her lover is couched in oblique language. I am sorry because, on reflection, I feel like my intense dislike of the woman and her life distracted me from the writing, which was plainly very effective since the book had such a strong impact on me and created such a powerful reaction. The book was the story of a wasted life.
Now my mood changed to one of weariness and incipient revolt. I played my wifely part adequately, and yet I could see it for what it was: a sham. And it was not only my married life that was a sham; my other life too did not, could not, bear active scrutiny. I saw the point of those grim days in Paris. They had been the means of preparing me for a life lived according to my own rules, rather than rules imposed on me by other people. I had had a glimpse of the freedom available to the purely selfish, though that freedom could be limited by desire. Once again I wanted to roam the streets unobserved, my thoughts confined to myself rather than anticipating another's movements, another's wishes. I wanted everyone to die and leave me alone. I particularly wanted Edmund to die, for I knew that without him I should be myself again and not the person I had becomes once I had chosen him, or been chosen by him.(p.60)

The whole book just goes round in circles as she rethinks herself: her friendship with Betsy, which is frequently broken beyond repair and then reestablished, her marriage, tedious to a fault but with Digby repeatedly referred to as 'honourable', her affair with Edmund, acknowledged as shallow and physical but to which she ascribes deep feeling, she recognises she should 'do' something with her life but utterly fails to act. Years go by, taking her from a newly married twenty-something to being middle aged, in which *nothing happens* apart from a couple of boring people coming round for dinner.

I wanted to scream in frustration, I wanted to give her a good hard slap. It's as if she never moved anywhere from the young woman she was bought up to be, learned nothing from her experiences, had such narrow expectations of life and no imagination. And as I often do I found myself clinging to the hope that it was all leading somewhere, an epiphany, anticipating some kind of denouement that never came, it just kind of dribbled to a halt at the end. I plodded through it, just as I am struggling with this review, because I wanted to contribute to the IABD. I do not feel inspired to read any of her other books.