Sunday, November 12, 2017

Review: Fraud

[Number 12 in my chronological re-read of Brookner's 24 novels.]

Anna Durrant is a "woman in her middle years" who has gone missing, but it has taken four months for anyone to notice. Her physician, Dr Lawrence Halliday, notified the police after she had missed several appointments. As the police begin to investigate we are introduced to the handful of people who are closest to Anna and in turn discover that none of them are really very close to her. There is her char woman Mrs Duncan, her late mother's frenemy Mrs Marsh, and Dr Halliday--the man her mother expected her to marry.

As the investigation continues the story of Anna and her relationships with her social circle is explained. Mrs Duncan really only sees her as a paycheck. Mrs. Marsh resents Anna's attentiveness, almost taking umbrage at her willingness to run errands, walk her to church, and take care of her while she is ill. Despite Mrs Marsh's old age and relative isolation she seems to feel that Anna is the one to pity. It's as if Mrs Marsh feels that associating with Anna--who had never been married or led any kind of interesting life--might reflect poorly on her own image. I have always obsessed about getting old and and being alone. Now that I am 48 I am beginning to wonder if even the best laid plans can go belly up and one can still end up alone in old age. Which is why I wonder why Mrs Marsh doesn't lighten up and appreciate Anna. But then I think about how sensitive I am to people that don't suit me perfectly and how little patience I have for them, and I can only imagine what kind of miserable bastard I am going to be in 30 years. I found this scene with Mrs Marsh particularly sad and beautiful.
Failing God, one turned to Nature. If only the year would turn, she thought longingly, as she plodded down the stairs to her own flat. If only I could smell grass and feel heat and see the sun! For now she craved only light and thought that if she lived until summer she would stare at the sun, taking its radiance into her very substance, letting her eyes burn until they were sightless. She would not mind dying, if it could be in the summer.
Dr Halliday's relationship with Anna is slightly more complicated and intimate. Not only is he Anna's and her late mother's doctor, but also the man her mother assumed she would marry. It seems Anna and Dr Halliday also assumed at different times the same thing. But Lawrence succumbs to the physical charms of Vickie Gibson, a slightly younger woman of a particularly superficial bent. Knowing how much the news will distress her ailing mother, both Anna and Lawrence keep the news of his marriage to Vickie a secret and Mrs Durrant goes to her grave thinking that Anna and Lawrence will be married. Although never spoken of, it eventually becomes clear to both Anna and Lawrence that they both would have been happier if they had married. Lawrence quickly tires of vapid Vickie and doesn't quite know what to do about it other than go on two-hour runs each night after work. This indeed, might be the earliest clear indication of the fraud in Fraud. First the charade of Anna and Lawrence pretending to Mrs Durrant and then fraud of Lawrence's marriage itself.

A fraud Anna perpetrates on herself is what she has done, and what she means to do to fill her life. Not needing a job, Anna is adrift except for her "research". When her mother is gone, Mrs Marsh is distant, and Lawrence occupied with Vickie, Anna doesn't know what to do with herself.
There was always her work of course, that not altogether invalid project to write a series of articles, or even, if she were capable of it, something more substantial, on the great salons of Paris during the Second Empire. The research had given her some agreeable moments, but she could not quite hide from herself the knowledge that until now the work had been more alibi than pastime, enabling her to escape...
The big fraud of the book is eventually identified and articulated by Anna herself. In the end we find her in Paris seemingly having figured out what to do with herself. It is kind of a deliciously odd ending because up until the final pages of the book it seems like we may never hear from Anna again with the action focused on Mrs Marsh and her daughter Philippa. But then Anna bumps into Philippa in a cafe and is surprised to learn from her that her absence in London has been noted. Anna expresses surprise at Phillipa's assertion that Mrs Marsh was very fond of her. Anna, tapped into some new source of self awareness and confidence, expresses her doubts about Mrs Marsh's feelings about her and explains to Philippa that she has spent her life being what others wanted her to be. The scales pulled from her eyes, Anna is no longer willing to continue the fraud that others have perpetuated on her through their expectations of her.
"I've grown up at last. Do you know how long it takes some of us? And now I'm free. Free of the old self. Free of expectations."
"Free of hope?"
"Oh, no, never free of hope. Hope is an old habit, not easily dislodged. No, free of expectations. I reserve my hope for a good outcome, a good cause. That is important, I think. A good cause."

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Review: A Closed Eye

[Number 11 in my chronological re-read of Brookner's 24 novels.]

Harriet Lytton, a recent widow in self-imposed exile in Switzerland, exhorts Lizzie Peckham, the daughter of her childhood friend, and ersatz friend of her own daughter Immy, to visit her in Switzerland. Why Harriet chooses Lizzie to help her mitigate her lonely life in Switzerland, and how Harriet got to this lonely state in the first place, is laid out as the timeline goes back to before Harriet was born.

The daughter of a vivacious, rather driven mother and a father left nervous by his experiences in World War II, Harriet is born with a prominent birthmark on her face. The birthmark not only informs how Harriet feels about her self, her relationships, and her place in the world, but it's also the motivation for Merle, Harriet's mother, to gently, but firmly push her into a marriage with a much older man. Harriet finds herself married to a man she doesn't really love and doesn't even really like much, but the birth of her perfect, blemishless, daughter Imogen ends up being the focus of her life . As Immy grows older, more independent, and frankly, brattier, Harriet begins to escape the tedium of her marriage by thinking about the possibility of an affair with Jack Peckham. The husband of her childhood friend Tessa, Jack is a TV news correspondent who represents all the danger, and excitement, and passion missing from Harriet's life.

In the meantime, the relationship between Harriet's Immy and Tessa's daughter Lizzie is never what Harriet thought it should be, but Harriet never figures this out. She is blind to how much the two girls dislike each other. Having been raised as the perfect child--the one who redeems Harriet's life, Immy ends up acting like someone who was treated as perfect. She becomes insufferable and spoiled. Lizzie on the other hand becomes bookish and quiet and old beyond her years. In a way Harriet and Tessa ended up with the wrong children and all may have benefited from a parent swap. Interestingly, re-reading Brookner's novels chronologically as I am, this is not the first time we see this notion of children born to the wrong parents in her work. The two sets of parents in Latecomers also each have have an only child who appears to be better suited to the other couple. It makes me wonder if Brookner felt she had been born into the wrong family.

And then, rather oddly for Brookner, there are a few spoilers. Without giving these spoilers away, one event that shapes the story fairly early on, and thus, isn't so much of a spoiler, is that Tessa dies young leaving Lizzie adrift and Jack, the subject of Harriet's seduction fantasies. But then the spoiler of spoilers happens that cements Harriet's future. Don't get me wrong, for those of you used to plot, this spoiler won't shock you much when you come across it, but for those who have read a lot of Brookner, it's pretty surprising.

The net result is a life of low expectations that are nevertheless unmet. To paraphrase Gertrude Stein, those of you who don't mind that won't mind that.

The jacket flap from my U.S. edition referred to the novel as a story of three generations of women, but I really think it is more accurately thought of as Harriet's story. Her mother Merle is fairly well fleshed out, but Immy remains pretty opaque even when we know is going on in her life. And all that we do learn about Merle and Immy is not really independent of their association with their daughter/mother. Brookner created a literary work that revolves around Harriet but Harriet's "real" life most certainly does not revolve around her.