Anita Brookner, who won the Booker Prize in 1984 for Hotel du Lac, occupies my pantheon of favorite writers somewhere between Elizabeth Bowen and Barbara Pym. She died this week at age 87.
Brookner has a reputation as a pessimistic writer who depicts single women. Her characters are smart, if lonely, and her observations are often comical. I do not find her pessimistic.
I just reread The Debut, published originally in the UK as A Start in Life. From the beginning I identified with the heroine, though my life is unlike hers. But just look at this opening line: “Dr. Weiss, at forty, knew that her life had been ruined by literature.”
Don’t we readers know what that is like? The heroine, Ruth Weiss, the daughter of a pretty actress, Helen, and the owner of a rare book store, George, expects people to behave like characters in books. She spent her childhood reading Dickens in the company of her strict German grandmother. She wishes she had read Balzac, whom she considers much more realistic. “Why had her nurse not read her a translation of Eugénie Grandet?” Ruth has written a book on Balzac’s women and is at work on the second volume. But her emotional life is barren, except for a year in France when she bloomed in the company of a charming English couple and had an affair with a married middle-aged philologist.
Ruth’s mother, Helen, and her father, George, also play a major role in the novel. Eventually Helen takes to her bed, while a chain-smoking housekeeper, Mrs. Cutler, nominally looks after things. George sells the bookstore, and then begins to spend all his evenings with Mrs. Jacobs, the woman who buys the store from him.
Helen becomes addicted to romantic suspense novels. I very much enjoyed the contrast between Ruth’s and Helen’s reading. While Ruth studies Eugenie Grandet at the Bibliothèque nationale in Paris, Helen reads a book a day in bed. Mrs. Cutler picks them out at the library.
Helen, fully made up but a bit dingy about the neck, was reading. She had got to the part where the governess, maddened by despair at the rakish ne’er-do-well younger son’s forthcoming engagement to the neighboring squire’s daughter, has rushed out into the night and is about to be discovered sobbing on the moor. Helen knew what was coming. Deserting the glittering lights of the ballroom, ne’er-do-well, his black curls streaming in the wind, finds a tiny fragile figure all but spent with exhaustion. Cradling her roughly in her arms, he realizes that she is his own true love. The book jacket showed the deserted fiancée, in vast crinoline, staring in agony through the window, with a dancing couple and a character in the background. Helen had read it before. Only a month before, in fact, but Mrs. Cutler had other things on her mind these days and did not spend too much time at the library.
Very, very funny! Heavens, I think I’ve read that book, too.
I confess that the only Brookner I’ve read was Hotel du Lac and I was a bit underwhelmed – but maybe I was in the wrong mood. I know people think very highly of her, so maybe I should give her another chance!
Some of her books are better than others. I do recommend The Debut. My favorite is one of her later novels, The Bay of Angels, and I think Heaven Ali may have blogged about that one not too long ago. (Well, someone blogged about it anyway!)
I think it might have been Ali – I know she’s a fan!
Yes do give her another chance. I’d try the early art criticism — she has a superb book on Watteau (and you get to look at the pictures) and just startling in insights a study of Greuze. I have read about 5 of her novels and used to read her art criticism when it appeared in journals like the NYRB or LRB or TLS. I loved the movie of Hotel du Lac too (was it Patricia Hodges?)
I was interested by Kat’s choice of telling quotation: ” “Dr. Weiss, at forty, knew that her life had been ruined by literature.” Two of the obituary reviews I read remarked that people have not been able to bring together Brookner’s art criticism and her novels. And left it at that. Maybe the quotation helps. Brookner found deep solace in art history and turned to these melancholy and deeply psychological-sexual pictures by Greuze, families in a kind of agon. She might be Dr Weiss whose life has been made possible by literature and at the same time ruined because the art writing enabled her to turn away and also gave her high ideals. Critics have a hard time connecting the pseudo-objectivity of criticism (very masculine in this impersonal pretense) with l’ecriture-femme which is what Brookner writes as novels. I’d love to take the time to reread Hotel du Lac and see if the descriptions of the places resemble Brookner’s descriptions of Watteau or or her heroine’s agon are like what we find in Brookner on romantic painting ….
Ellen, what a fascinating comment! In The Debut, she also brings in the art. There are several scenes in which Ruth is looking at paintings in Paris, feeling lonely, and feeling that they don’t quite deliver what she needs. I haven’t read her art critisicsm, but did read she was the first woman to hold some kind of prestigious one-year art history position at Cambridge.
Oh my, I had not heard that she died. Her personal life always seemed that it could have belonged to a character in one of her own books. Hotel du Lac is my favorite but I have not read more than half a dozen of her books.
It is sad that she died, and we’ll have no more Anita Brookner novels! She’s a stupendous writer. I thought I had read all her books, but just learned she wrote 24. I’m sure I missed some. Julian Barnes wrote an interesting essay about her in The Guardian, and she does sound like a character in her books.
Thank you for steering me to the Julian Barnes essay; quite interesting reading.
Glad you enjoyed it!