[When Simon and I decided to create International Anita Brookner Day, the first thing I thought was that Peta Mayer had to be involved. Mayer is a Brookner scholar in Australia whose blog is a wonderful resource on the work of Anita Brookner and she has graciously agreed to write something special for the IABD blog. - Thomas]
While reflecting on this topic, I was reminded of Brookner’s own comments about expectations, offered in an interview in 1985. ‘I do envy those who can take life a little more easily,’ she said: ‘I am too handicapped by expectations.’ The novelist’s words suggest, then, that she might disapprove of this list; literary expectations in one way being the evil stepmother of the contemporary ‘spoiler’ (and expect a few mild spoilers in the list to follow). In Brookner’s case I think she meant that, like most people, she expected to get married and have children - and therefore to act a certain way - when in reality a completely different and magnificent life presented itself. Brookner’s early expectations not only occluded her ability to recognise the life unfolding, they also became embedded in her personality and thereafter determined a negative response to her emerging reality. ‘I find the moral position of many modern novels faintly ridiculous, as if you can start editing your life halfway through it and do something you’ve never done before and which you’re unprepared for anyway. I don’t think that’s feasible,’ she told Hermione Lee in her only ever televised interview, also in 1985. But another piece of Brookner wisdom also springs to mind in this context, and it’s a theme that resurfaces time and again in her fiction. ‘The worse thing in life is not knowing what is going on’ she told a reviewer in The Times in 1983. Similarly, a character’s discovery that she’s been acting in the dark is not an unusual denouement in the Brookner narrative and has incited more than one critic to accuse her of sadism. But what do the critics know?!
I first started reading Brookner in the late 90s. My mother handed me Visitors (1997) when I went to stay at her house with a boyfriend. I read the book then and there in one sitting (its theme of obnoxious houseguests was perhaps prophetic). I thought the book was hilarious and I immediately became obsessed with the author and her reception. I couldn’t understand why Brookner was so underrated and I dedicated the next ten years of my life to researching this very pressing issue. But now it seems she is enjoying a renaissance. As indicated by the International Anita Brookner Day, this great tribute to Brookner that Thomas and Simon have organised, readers are fighting back. The list below represents my own injunction to entertain a life spent in the grip of this highly-affecting novelist.