Sunday, November 20, 2016

Review: Brief Lives

[Number 10 in my chronological re-read of Brookner's 24 novels.]

In the past I've accused myself of reducing Brookner's novels to just being about lonely, depressed people waiting to die. Re-reading the first nine of her novels has given me abundant proof that there is much more going on than that.

And then in Brief Lives, there's this:
Certain evenings I sat in the sitting-room without bothering to put on the lights, looking out at that street lamp.
That would by Fay. A woman in her early 60s, once a regular singer on the BBC, widowed, alone, and thinking that there really isn't much left for her but watching the timer on life run out. These are the Brookner characteristics I most remember from reading her 24 novels the first time. I alternate between taking comfort in this kind of character and deeply fearing her. Or more accurately, I fear becoming her.

Fay doesn't have much in the way of a social life. There's Millie her old flatmate and singing colleague at the BBC, but she lives in the country now and Fay doesn't see her much. Her husband's cousin and his wife occasionally invite her to dinner where she meets a man. But he is emotionally unavailable and keeps her as much at arm's length as he does seem to enjoy spending time with her. That is until she has a human emotion, at which point he fades quickly from her life.

For the most part though, Fay's life is consumed by Julia, a former actress whose husband Charlie was a business associate of her husband Owen. Julia is like a low-rent Norma Desmond character minus the glamour.
She lived on omelettes and whisky, maintaining that she liked neither, and appeared none the worse for it.
Julia surrounds herself with women who are devoted to her. I would call them sycophants, but that is too uncharitable. There's Pearl, her former dresser, and Maureen, a small town newspaper columnist who interviews her and ends up becoming a regular fixture in Julia's life. Both are essentially care givers and companions and never considered by Julia to be equals or even friends.

Fay's relationship with Julia is also unequal and it's complicated. With no real ties to Julia, Fay still feels compelled to ensure that the ungrateful Julia is okay which often means enduring Julia's deprecating, mean-spirited banter. Fay finds it impossible to break free from Julia and allows her to get under her skin. Julia manages to somehow poison whatever drive and determination Fay has for her own future happiness.

Even after Julia is out of her life, Fay is unable to see anything in her future but death. For those of us who look forward to retirement sometime in our 60s, Fay's outlook is a puzzle. I don't think it was Brookner's intention to depict someone who is clinically depressed, but it is hard to understand Fay's outlook. As she contemplates her life after the death of her husband--who she didn't really like--she sells their home contemplates moving into a new flat.
I could see myself in Drayton Gardens, going out with my basket on wheels, tempting my own appetite, keeping up appearances, and doing no harm, not even to myself. Lonely? Yes, I should be lonely, but in time I should see that this was to my advantage. I should be training myself for old age, which takes a certain amount of training; better to start as I meant to go on.
I used to worry about being this person before I met my husband. I was 33 and had come to terms with being mate-less for the balance of my life. Now, 14 years later, with a very happy married life, but no kids, I find myself thinking about a future, albeit a somewhat distant one, where the only people in my life are the ones I pay to take care of me. This horrifies me to my core. I've got 30 years to make some friends who aren't long distance. Although by Fay's standards I only have about 15 years to make some meaningful connections. Yikes.

As with all of Brookner's novels the prose is brilliant and precise. Unless you are looking for a big downer, I wouldn't recommend this for your first Brookner experience (try Lewis Percy). But if you do like a bit of a wallow, Brief Lives will not disappoint.

1 comment:

  1. Hello Thomas,

    A wonderfully insightful review of Antia Brookner's 'Brief Lives'. It's one of my all time favourites. I know a few characters like Julia in my life. That's why I love reading her novels.

    The sheer virtuosity of her observations and the sense of internal tensions of ordinary events and relationships which she explored with an air of delicacy, sober sensitivity and detachment.

    Brookner said in her most famous novel, 'Hotel Du Lac' that she wrote her novels for the tortoise market (I am paraphrasing here). Julia in the novel is undoubtedly the hare. She remains indifferent and unrepentant. On the other hand, the kind-hearted and observant Julia could be based on Brookner's mother who was, like Julia, a professional singer of lieder and sentimental ballads.

    To me, a mark of a good novel is to reveal the extra-ordinariness of the ordinary and Brookner's 'Brief Lives' is a good testimony of that.

    Thank you so much, Thomas, for sharing your personal review of this novel.

    With warm wishes, ASD