Saturday, October 31, 2015
In Latecomers, Anita Brookner strays away from her more typical solitary protagonist and gives us an ensemble cast. There are life-long friends and business partners Hartmann and Fibich, their wives Yvette and Christine (respectively), and their children Marianne and Toto (respectively). The emotional center of the book, and what there is of a plot, definitely revolve around Hartmann and Fibich. The chronology starts with them. Thrown together as youths when refugee Fibich comes to live with Hartmann and his aunt, the two become like brothers, go into business together, and end up living in the same apartment building for all their adult lives. In the meantime both acquire wives and one child each.
Despite this symmetry, it's clear Hartmann is the one in charge. It's his aunt who raises them. He is the first to get married. The one to find and buy a flat and then eventually grab one in the same building for Fibich and his wife. And the one who is, or at least appears to be, the steadier of the two. More certain of himself, more confident in business, love, and family, and less troubled by his past. Their wives reinforce the power dynamic. Hartmann's wife Yvette is one of those people who demands attention. Pretty, elegantly put together, coquettish, and seemingly bent on becoming the boss' wife. Paying only enough attention to her duties at Hartmann and Fibich's office to keep her job long enough to hook and marry Hartmann. I don't think she necessarily set out to seduce him but her flirtatious nature and desire to be set up in a life, far from the world of her mother's reduced circumstances, made it a bit inevitable.
Christine on the other hand is the hired help in Hartmann's aunt's house--although her implied intellect and class status, if not her actual duties, make her feel more like a ladies' companion than a maid. When she helps Fibich nurse the aunt through her final illness, the two become close and eventually marry and move into the flat Hartmann has found for them in his building.
And then the children happen. Marianne seems a bit quieter, less sure of herself, and less glamorous than Hartmann and Yvette. And Toto is confident to the point of arrogance which makes him feel decidedly different than Fibich and Christine.
In some ways I expected Latecomers to have a little more to say about the lives of the two children and the contrast with their respective parents. Instead the novel has much more to do with Fibich trying to make sense of his past. He becomes increasingly discomfited by all that he can't remember of his short childhood in Germany and the parents who were lost to him at the hands of the Nazis. Hartmann's family was similarly impacted but with much less effect on Hartmann's life.
The fascinating thing about the way Brookner writes about the impacts of Nazism on Hartmann and Fibich is that she never mentions the Nazis or what they did. I think the only explicit mention is the blurb written by her publisher on the jacket flap. In the novel itself it is only hinted at in the most oblique ways. Not only are details or proper names never mentioned, but even the generic word atrocity would seem out of place. Brookner tends to do that--she will write in great detail about emotions, or small details, but the outside world, the one where news and history happen, never really comes up. To me, this is never a problem. Brookner has created a world that is less of an ahistorical bubble than it is a delivery system for deep personal feeling.
Sunday, May 17, 2015
I feel like I should be an expert on A Friend from England. Not only did I just finish re-reading the novel, but I also listened to the audio version after that. The process of re-reading allowed me to reacquaint myself with the plot and, being a re-read, I was able to focus on details I missed the first time around. With the plot still fresh in my mind, following that up with the audiobook was pretty enlightening. Listening to the book each day--without having to read the words myself--really allowed me to think about the characters and what motivated them. It also had me thinking about what kind of people they really were and whether or not I have known anyone like them in my own life.
Thirty-something Rachel, her parents both dead, has been befriended by her father's (and now her own) accountant Oscar Livingstone and his wife Dorrie. Rachel enjoys being a part of their family circle even if she is somewhat ambivalent, at least at first, about their daughter Heather. Although just a few years younger than Rachel, Heather is not someone with whom Rachel finds much in common. Rachel sees Heather as cosseted and helpless. She runs a dress shop her parents bought for her and she seems to Rachel to be naive and ill-equipped to deal with the adult world.
Rachel also runs a shop (a bookshop no less) but considers herself to be the opposite of Heather in just about every way. Lacking parents or any other relatives on whom she can rely, Rachel considers herself far more worldly and capable than Heather, and she resents the way in which Oscar and Dorrie have her on such a high pedestal. Part of me thinks that Rachel's problem with Heather has less to do with a dislike of Heather and more to do with feelings of envy that she is not the focus of Heather's parents' attention.
On top of this, we are led to believe that Rachel, unlike Heather, has an extremely varied and busy sex life. Brookner never specifies what Rachel gets up to at night but she makes repeated references to activity that had me wondering if Rachel turned tricks in the seedier parts of town. I don't think that is really the case but it is clear that she has multiple sexual partners and prides herself on never getting close to any of them. Not surprisingly, Heather's approach to love and relationships is the opposite, and that, to Rachel, is further proof of Heather's naive view of the world.
Once the characters have been introduced and Rachel's emotional and psychological workings have been laid out, the novel moves us through a few crises that don't directly involve Rachel yet they seem to consume her mental capacity. Aside from buying out a partner in her bookshop and buying her flat, Brookner never really lets us into Rachel's world except as it intersects with that of the Livingstone's. Rachel turns out to be the eponymous friend from England and that seems to explain a lot. Despite her social, sexual, and business independence, it seems that in the end the only way Brookner allows Rachel to be defined is as someone's friend. Rather than having her own identity and being someone that people recognize as an individual, she is seen as an appurtenance to the lives of others, and an inconsequential one at that.
One side note I found interesting, there are two gay characters in the book, one incidental and the other of specific importance to the plot. As with many things, Brookner never comes out and says it. It is just implied almost as if it were happening off-stage, like Rachel's sex life. The only reason I bring it up is that the cultural signifiers Brookner uses to let us know they are gay are so painfully indicative of a time that is not that long ago but might as well be light years in the past. We learn that one character is gay not just because he is in what is almost imperceptibly implied to be a gay pub, but because he is wearing eye shadow. This seems a bit of a throwback even for 1987. The only thing missing is a limp wrist and a lisp. Oh, I take it back, I do believe at one point Brookner references the sibilance of the gay character's speech. So glad that this depiction now seems as old fashioned as it does. Changes over the past 28 years have, in most circles, annihilated the attitudes that helped promulgate Thatcher's notoriously anti-gay Clause 28. And good riddance.
Wednesday, April 8, 2015
Just about every relationship in The Misalliance (or A Misalliance in the UK) could be considered a misalliance.
After being left by her husband of twenty years Blanche spends her days wandering the National Gallery and her solitary evenings with a bottle of wine. She spends a fair amount of time in musing on the reasons why her husband left her and the type of woman he left her for, but I never got the feeling that that was the point of this novel. In many ways Blanche seems rather complacent about her husband's departure, as if it had been her own fault for not being the right kind of woman. That in itself is tragic given that she devoted her married life to becoming the kind of public and private companion that her husband Bertie seemed to want.
While volunteering at the local hospital one day Blanche is drawn to Sally Beamish, a young mother who is there trying to get help for her three-year old daughter Elinor/Nellie who is mute. Blanche is immediately taken with the child, seeing her as a patient, old soul putting up with a flighty mother and an absent father. Indeed she sees Nellie as a kindred spirit and she moves to offer assistance to Sally whose life is a bit of a self-imposed mess. Her husband Paul is off being a factotum for a wealthy American family who have oddly decided to only pay him in one lump sum at the end of an extended trip. By the end of that trip, however, Paul is essentially accused of embezzling funds and is unlikely to get the pay coming to him. This situation never amounts to anything with legal implications but Blanche is coerced into intervening on Paul's behalf --a man she has never even seen before.
Throughout all of this Blanche's ex-husband Bertie continues to drop in most evenings ostensibly to see how Blanche is doing. This struck me as Bertie wanting to have it both ways. Why give up the comforts of a trusted, supportive ex-spouse just because you have moved on to a younger, more dynamic wife? Although Blanche looks forward to these meetings and retains an emotional attachment to Bertie, I never got the feeling that they were necessary to her well-being. If anything I felt they might be keeping her from moving forward. Also part of the story is Patrick, a suitor in the days prior to Bertie with whom she has remained friends over the years. She asks for his advice on how to best help Sally and Nellie and he ends up falling in love with the much younger Sally. Nothing ever comes of it, Sally uses Patrick for support in the same way she uses Blanche, but it is enough for Blanche to see Patrick for what he really is.
Blanche is a bit of a victim of male behavior and privilege, and although she is a bit stuck trying to make sense of it all, I kind of felt like she might be on the cusp of something. Perhaps it's a recognition that the men in her life are really rather weak and certainly not to be relied upon. Blanche's decision to leave them all behind and go off traveling for an extended, undefined period is, I suppose, at least partly out of desperation. But I couldn't help projecting my own wishes for Blanche. This was going to be the moment of her triumph. The moment when she leaves it all behind and discovers who she really is.
And then at the eleventh hour Bertie returns--and seemingly for good. Is this vindication for Blanche and the restoration of her married life? Perhaps, but rather than finding it something to celebrate, I found it no more than a threat to her ultimate happiness. A return to her life in a comfy prison. But Brookner leaves us hanging as to what happens next. My feeling is that if Blanche does take him back it won't stick. He may not leave her again but she will realize he isn't what she wants and this is the real misalliance of the book. Not the first 20 years, not the connection with Sally and Nellie, but what happens after Bertie's return. His return may delay her self-realization, but it won't preempt it entirely.
This thought may not be worth much, but it is something I want to memorialize for my own edification. I loved the scenes where Mrs. Duff comes to Blanche's rescue despite the fact that Blanche has never shown her more than a begrudged politeness. Mrs. Duff's simple, but helpful assistance when Blanche fell ill seems like the only bit of altruism in the book. Brookner doesn't make much of it. But she must have had something in mind. I can think of a few things, but I really just mention it because I was warmed by those scenes.