Instead of my usual practice of reviewing a particular book, this morning I want to talk about and pay tribute to an incredible and prolific author, Anita Brookner. I will mention a number of her novels, and will end by focusing briefly on her twenty-second book, The Rules of Engagement, published in 2003.
One of the first things that drew me to Brookner’s writing is her total command of the language; she is not embarrassed by her huge vocabulary. And though a meticulous user of the language, her prose is liquid and flowing. Quite by accident, the first novel I read of hers was Hotel du Lac, for which she won the Booker prize in 1984. The lead character in that book is ironically named Edith Hope. Brookner says that we are deceived by literature (and especially Victorian novels) into the belief that virtue is rewarded. In fact, she decides, good fortune is a gift from the gods, and the favor of the gods is granted not to the good but to the bold. In fact, very sympathetic to the French existentialists, she cannot bring herself to believe in any god, although in one of her very rare interviews, she said she wishes she could. Or, more accurately, she would like to believe in hope. Like William James, for whom god is really simply a name for the belief that the future can be better than the past, it is hope of deliverance from loneliness and death that she would like to believe in.
Like Edith Hope in Hotel du Lac, almost all of Brookner’s characters are intellectual middle class women who are (or become) isolated due to disappointments in love. But while her characters long for mates, for men who will take care of them, they relate mostly to other women and are dismissive of men who, other than providing respectability, are seen as immature, requiring constant physical as well as emotional care, and who are ultimately more-or-less in the way. Unmarried and childless herself, Brookner has said that she had no desire to be taken over by a man, and yet many of her heroines appear to be looking precisely for that. Edith, in Hotel du Lac, actually has two proposals of marriage, one from a good but hopelessly dull man, and the other from a selfish adventurer whom she just manages to turn away from at the end of the book.
I find Brookner to be exceptional in her descriptions of the inner life. One commentator lauds her as a “brilliant forensic examiner of the inner life” an apt description of her powers of observation. Although she says of herself that she is not a feminist, and insists that she prefers the company of men, she seems to me to be a feminist in the deepest sense of the word. Her characters are usually career women, bright and independent even when they see themselves as seeking “normalcy”—a lasting marriage and children. Long before becoming a novelist, in 1967 Brookner became the first woman to hold the Slade Professorship of Fine Art at Cambridge, a position she held until her retirement in 1988. She insists that teaching and scholarship were the really important activities in her life, and that writing novels was a simply a kind of dabbling, a “displacement activity.” In one of her last novels, Strangers, published in 2009, the protagonist is a seventy-three year old man who has unhappily retired from his banking job and is isolated and lonely, left finally to seek comfort from strangers. Brookner, herself, was eighty-one when she wrote Strangers, and says that like her protagonist she feared loneliness and, eventually, death among strangers.
Not surprisingly, two of the authors Brookner most admires are Edith Wharton and Henry James, both masters at describing the interior life of the mind. Her female characters remind me of the strong but doomed characters in Wharton’s novels, women who at least think they want love, want a man, but who find themselves unable to shape themselves, truncate themselves, in the ways that seem necessary. But while Wharton’s characters seem heroic in their rejection of societal pressures, Brookner’s seem simply unhappy.
Brookner was the only child of Polish Jews who emigrated to England. She says that she was brought up to take care of her parents who were transplanted and fragile people, unhappy and in need of protection. In an article in Paris Review, the interviewer, Susha Guppy, notes that all of Brookner’s heroines have a “displaced person” quality, and she asks if Brookner, herself, feels like that. Brookner answers that people see her as serious and depressed, and admits that she has never felt completely at home in England. Indeed, after quite rapidly reading up a half dozen of her novels, intoxicated by her insights and her superb writing, I began to notice how uniformly unhappy most of her characters are. Since I have noted Brookner’s allegiance to existentialism, I'd like to point out that I see existentialism as a cautiously optimistic philosophy, stressing rebellion and change, but I admit that some of the early works tend towards a kind of nihilism, and Brookner seems more influenced by that darker, pessimistic side than by the stress on human freedom and extreme voluntarism of Jean Paul Sartre. In her novel Brief Lives, she paints a picture of human lives as indeed short and unhappy, and quite obviously situated towards death. She is not a happy read, and yet her insights about relationships more than make up for the bleakness of her stories.
I’m not surprised that one of Brookner’s best writer friends is Julian Barnes. Both are what I have called ‘quiet’ writers. There is not much dramatic action in their novels, no famous people or sensational sex as in many pop novels. I am reminded also of other quiet writers like Alice Munro and Alice McDermott who show just how interesting and illuminating the inner lives of so-called ordinary people are.
Let me turn briefly to one of Brookner’s latest novels, The Rules of Engagement, published in 2003. Although she rarely mentions historical dates in her novels, in this novel she tells us immediately that her lead character, Elizabeth, was born in 1948, “well behaved, incurious, with none of the rebellious features adopted by those who make youthfulness a permanent quest.” Born to unhappy parents, Elizabeth nevertheless conforms herself to the expectations of her mother. “She envisaged a life for me exactly like her own, marriage to a professional man, a comfortable establishment, licensed idleness, licensed amusements.” The other major figure in the novel, also an Elizabeth, but choosing early to rechristen herself Betsy, has neither parents nor background to insure such a safe future, and embarks on a much more adventurous life—one where career and real loves will be the goals. Married in her twenties to a much older man, Elizabeth both worries about her cousin Betsy and admires her for her freedom and courage.
Reading the papers I could not help but be aware of the enormous strides women were making; they were vocal and radical in a way I knew I could never be, but there was a discontent, even among the most liberated, that I felt summoned to share. I was still young, young enough to wish for something fiercer than the life for which I had settled, or to which I had succumbed.
And so both Elizabeth and Betsy situate themselves in this new world, and more than in any of Brookner’s novels that I have read, the call to liberation is heard even by these relatively conventional girls.
We had both been born too soon for the freedoms currently claimed by women; we had assumed, perhaps wrongly, that safety lay in stability, that love and desire could have only one true end: marriage, and no doubt children. That this certainty was being attacked from all sides had not yet taken us over, changing us from what we had been and were still destined to be. We were innocent, like girls at school, waiting patiently for fulfillment, which would come to us in the guise of another person, and not a series of more or less random persons who might or might not have our well-being at heart.
Elizabeth, unlike most of Brookner’s female characters, does decide to have a lover, to escape the tedium of her married life; she also throws over her mother’s belief that “a woman’s principal need was to be looked after by a man.”
Brookner is accused by critics of writing the same novel over and over with the same cast of colorless, unhappy people. She responds that of course she is writing the same novel, trying finally to get it right. Her writing is an attempt to be lucid, to get behind the facades of everyday life. I believe she succeeds and that her lucidity is far more important than writing happy books.