I am not a marathoner. I got extremely sick the one time I ran, and actually completed, a half-marathon in my twenties. But my addiction to the novels of Anita Brookner, the brilliant chronicler of single women’s lives who won the 1984 Booker Prize, surely counts as a marathon. I have read five of her books in the last week.
Today I took the “Brookner-thon” outdoors. It was a lovely day, in the fifties, and I went out with a copy of her third novel, Look at Me. (More on how I found the perfect outdoor spot later in this post.)
What makes a Brookner book a Brookner? Her heroines (and sometimes heroes) have problems connecting with people: they are solitary, have few or no friends, read incessantly, and take long walks. If they are married, they do not love their spouses.
In Look at Me, the narrator, Fanny, works in the reference library “of a medical research institute dedicated to the study of problems of human behavior.” She catalogues photographs of images of Melancholy and Death, and lives in her dead parents’ flat in a building inhabited by old people. Her best friend is Olivia, a colleague who lives with her parents and is slightly more irritable than Fanny with the eccentrics in the reading room. Fanny is a writer, taking notes every night on the strangeness of the library staff and regulars for a novel: writing is her way of saying, “Look at me.” But Fanny stops writing after she is befriended by a handsome doctor’s charming, gregarious girlfriend, Alix,. Suddenly she has an active social life, eats dinner at restaurants instead of tiny meals on trays prepared, and is invited out almost every night. Alix throws her together with James, an introverted psychiatrist who lives with his mother and believes in pharmacology. But the two do not have sex, and it turns out Alix is not the friend you trust with that. Indeed, she seems to be a very dangerous friend.
Many of Brookner’s heroines are spinsters. Am I a spinster? No. Was she a spinster? In a way: she was single. Apparently I am a spinster inside myself. (Are we all?) Perhaps it is because I vowed as a young feminist I would never marry, and have been married (almost) ever since. We often identify with characters who are completely different from us. Why do we read about Frances/Fanny, whether in Look at Me or Austen’s Mansfield Park. The writers make us see these strangers so vividly. And we can share thoughts of characters we will never meet; even characters the writer may never meet.
I’m sure that others of you will be taking your reading-thons outdoors now that it’s spring. Here’s what you need if you plan on a “Brookner-thon.”
- A cafe or restaurant. Brookner’s characters, solitary though they are, often eat in public. They dine at Harrods, in Chelsea, in fine restaurants in Geneva, or at the Italian restaurant around the corner. But do they dine al fresco, as I did today? (See photo at top of post.) Well, surely sometimes.
- A strong cup of coffee. You must “woman-up” and drink coffee while you read and observe the world through Brookner’s eyes. Tea is too tepid for the reader fo the very grown-up books of Brookner. It might not be a bad thing to take an even stronger drink. You could, of course, Bring Your Own Thermos.
- A glass of something cold as a “chaser.” You might need a cold glass of water after all that coffee. Go figure, but the cafe claimed it did not have water. I was given a free drink of something pink with no calories.
- Paperbacks are preferred on your outings. Thar way if you have to get up for a minute, you can absent-mindedly lay the book face-down on the table, since you forgot your bookmark, and the only paper in your purse is an old Kleenex. (The heroines of Brookner’s books would doubtless disapprove of this treatment of a paperback, but at least is isn’t an e-book.)
- A Brookner-thon can be held in a park. Brookner’s heroines spend much time walking in the beautiful parks in London. I do not, alas, live near such a park. There are many memorial benches on the trails, but people have taken to decorating thing with rosaries, strings of beads, potted plants, and are they places to sit? They used to be! I biked through a park past what I mistook for a sculpture of giant Adirondack chairs. Each is taller than a tall man and would fit two or three or four people. I was assured that these were chairs, not a sculpture, but I didn’t fancy scrambling up and then heaving myself out of it later.
Enjoy your weekend reading, whatever the book might be!