The great thing about writing book reviews is it makes you think. The great thing about reading Anita Brookner is she really makes you think...and then want to talk to someone about what you've read.
Thomas at My Porch and Simon of Savidge Reads are co-hosting International Anita Brookner Day this Saturday 16 July. They remind us that "thirty years ago ...Anita Brookner had her first novel, the aptly titled A Start in Life (or The Debut in the U.S.) published at the tender age of 53." They're encouraging everyone to read and review her work.
Well, thirty years ago I was twenty and probably about to read Anita Brookner for the first time...I had in fact just left home. I haven't read Anita Brookner for yonks and welcomed the return. Leaving Home is one of Brookner's more recent titles and how curious and spooky that I should choose it from the library shelf after all these years.
Thomas is quite correct. There really is no excuse not to read an Anita Brookner - they are mostly under 200 pages and a relatively easy read. I polished off Leaving Home in less than a week but was left with a slightly maudlin feeling - or one of deep melancholy. Don't get me wrong - I tend to lean towards the melancholy in terms of taste, but this time I was feeling a bit impatient and disaffected with it. "Where's the drama?" I wanted to scream - reminiscent of my colleagues' John and Billy - who won't mind being called old (in the nicest sense of the word) friends/screenwriting lecturers from AFTRS days.
Peta Mayer says there are ten things you should expect from an Anita Brookner novel - my review is probably a reflection of Point Number 5 - Expect to see a reflection of yourself, not necessarily in the best light!
I was forced to reflect on my feelings...something which I think we should do more of....really critically analyse our responses to things. Why was I so disaffected? What is great writing after all? Had perhaps Anita Brookner drawn a very accurate depiction of a character that was perhaps just a little too close to the bone for me? What were my thoughts and feelings when I made the momentous decision to leave home? What was I hoping to achieve? What had I made of my life? Had I really rebelled or had I conformed in the end? And was that a character fault or the way of all things?
My memory of Anita Brookner's work is that she really hones in on one character's experience. It becomes at times somewhat claustrophobic - particularly if the characters don't do much or are great thinkers...which is the case in this instance. Our main character in Leaving Home is Emma. Emma is a writer reflecting on her journey to this point. The novel opens with her remembering a dream from her youth (there's another one of Peta's points no doubt - Point Number 9 - Freud). The dream points to the necessity of Emma leaving home in order to carve out, she hopes, a less sad and lonely existence than that of her widowed mother.
Emma is the epitome of Englishness. What do I mean by that? Well she is unfailingly polite, restrained, tactful, discrete. Emma writes thank you letters. Need I say more? I do not think Brookner chose her name lightly - Jane Austen's Emma must be one of the most famous character's in English literature - and yet Brookner's Emma is, I think, very different. Emma is anxious to leave home gracefully.
It would have to be managed, and managed, if possible, without disloyalty, more or less invisibly, above all in good faith.Emma is an only child and a daughter - which can bring the double handicap of being expected to be very good - and whilst she cares genuinely for her mother's feelings, she wrestles with the expectation of her uncle to be her mother's supporter and provider. Emma in short needs to rebel. But, dear reader, Emma is English. People who queue find it hard to rebel. She settles on studying classical garden design, is offered a scholarship in France and away she goes, in search of "another source of authority, another agent of influence." Where better to learn to rebel than to ensconce herself in Paris - the very home of revolution?
We then witness Emma's various attempts to seek out real and/or satisfying relationships both with members of the opposite sex and her own sex. Of all the relationships, her friendship with the aptly named Francoise is the most complex and challenging. Complex because Francoise is almost a reflection of herself but not quite. Francoise is also an only child and a daughter. But Francoise could almost be the French version of Jane Austen's Emma. Whilst not beautiful, she is certainly striking and "electric with an energy that made her presence in the library dangerously welcome." Francoise is not a match-maker as such, but is certainly keen to see Emma "break out" and find an "amoreuse". Francoise only handicap is her controlling mother, who is keen to marry her off to the local prize beau - "Jean-Charles - a pale, slightly corpulent man of indeterminate age." The relationship is challenging because, whilst Francoise is an agent of influence and change, her authority becomes a threat to Emma's own self-determination.
It would spoil the book if I told you too much more. There is drama - eventually - in Leaving Home. Brookner saves it til the very end. It wasn't til this passage that my heart fluttered in recognition of the Brookner of yore..."It takes a kind of genius to save one's own life, the sort of genius that I so signally lacked." Now things were getting interesting! What would happen next?
For me Brookner's strength is her great depiction of character. Emma is by no stretch of the imagination a conventional hero. She says as much about herself and I don't think it would take too much away to quote some of the novel's last few lines....
Not everyone is born to fulfil an heroic role. The only realistic ambition is to live in the present. And sometimes, quite often in fact, this is more than enough to keep one busy.What do you think? Should we all be legends in our own lunchtime? Is Emma a victim of her Englishness which she can never escape? Or her cloistered upbringing? Or her sex? Is she a victim or a hero? Is she Anita Brookner's alter ego wishing she had been Simone de Beauvoir but rather glad she wasn't? And yes I know that is very naughty of me to say - I am being deliberately provocative, boys and girls! Who else has read She came to Stay - funny how the heroine is called Francoise - non? C'mon - what's your take on this slim but tardis-like novel?