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.