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.

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