Making Things Better by Anita Brookner

In a recent essay in the New York Times, “In Praise of Anita Brookner,”  Rumaan Alam wrote, “Reading is an intellectual exercise (and as a writer, I can claim it as work) but I binge only when writers offer me pleasure. It’s less graduate seminar than love affair. I endorse this immersive way of reading, especially when it comes to Anita Brookner.”

I am a fan of the Booker Prize-winning Anita Brookner. Her style is elegant and graceful, and I admire her dry humor.  Most of her heroines are single, but it doesn’t matter if you’re single or married:  you can identify, at least on occasion, with the emotions of her solitary heroines. I especially love The Rules of Engagement (which I wrote about here), a novel about two childhood friends who reconnect after they are widowed. They become doubles, much to the narrator Elizabeth’s chagrin.

And so, mesmerized by the New York Times,  I went to my bookcase and took out my copy of Brookner’s 2002 novel, Making Things Better.  It is a perfect novel, but it is relentlessly grim.

The Jewish narrator, 73-year-old Julius Herz, is an uninteresting hero, and yet every detail of his day is made interesting by Brookner.  He has been dutiful, always lived with his parents, and devoted his life to “making things better” for his family.  After they left Nazi Germany and came to England, they lived like mice.  He and his father worked in a music shop. When their employer-landlord asked them to leave the big flat for a tiny flat above the store, they obeyed, but Julius’s wife moved out.  And now he has retired, and the time goes slowly. He takes walks, sits in the park, reads Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice (he prefers Buddenbrooks).  visits the National Gallery, and goes to bed very early.  He enjoys his routine.

He has never had a great passion, though he and his wife had good sex. And now, quite suddenly, he falls in love with his new neighbor, Sophie, a beautiful young financial advisor.  When he accidentally lets her know–a slip of old age, a blurring of boundaries–it is disastrous. He does not understand quite what sexual harassment is.  He goes into hiding,  curtains closed, emotions shut down, leaving the flat only after she has gone out, and feeling hunted.   The lease on his flat is running out.  Could he escape to Switzerland and live in a hotel with his cousin Fanny, who rejected him long ago?  And he realizes, finally, that he has lived his whole life as an exile.

He remembered, almost with impatience, the humble gratitude he had felt when he first took possession of the flat, the amazed delight with which he had furnished it, added to it, his timid pride at being a householder. Now that very timidity saddened him.  He saw that he had lived his life as if it were under threat, as if he still bore the marks of the original menace and of the enormity that might have been his. This, he was convinced, made transience the only option, exile, impermanence, the route indicated for him so long ago.  And it had taken a lifetime for him to understand this!  At last he would take his place in history.  In making his home in a country famed for its neutrality he would be obeying ancestral impulses.  In that direction lay the safety he might yet come to desire.

Making Things Better is brilliant and Thomas Mann-ish, but I miss Brookner’s humor.  And yet why should I expect humor?  This is truly one of the saddest novels I have ever read.

I do love Brookner, but it might be good to drink some cocktails with  little umbrellas in them to cheer you up while you read this.

An “Anita Brookner-thon” & Look at Me

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                           The “Anita Brookner-thon” at a cafe!

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.”

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.)
  5. 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.
Giant Adirondack chairs: not ideal!

Giant Adirondack chairs: not ideal!

Enjoy your weekend reading, whatever the book might be!

Anita Brookner on a Chilly Friendship: The Rules of Engagement

Rules of Engagement brookner 2e1c123e613b659bf8215d5b9d890a22-w204@1xI wonder if The Rules of Engagement is my favorite Anita Brookner novel.

As I read it, it occurred to me that it might even be the right Brookner for fans of Elena Ferrante.  It is not that Brookner shares Ferrante’s emotional tone:  on the contrary, she is chilly and forbidding.  But just as Ferrante traces the friendship of doubles Elena and Lila in the Neapolitan Quartet, so  Brookner’s heroines Elizabeth and Betsy  meet at school and shadow each other in their parallel adult lives. But, as you might expect, Brookner’s novel is a much more uncomfortable read.

Brookner is known for her solitary heroines, but these two are different, in that they marry. The narrator, Elizabeth, is cool and in control, not emotionally involved with friends or, later, her husband. Sound familiar?  But hold on:  both Elizabeth and her double, Betsy, are widowed while relatively young. And another thing sets them apart:  their childless state.

it takes a while for Elizabeth to address their childlessness.   She begins with a description of the inception of her long, uncomfortable friendship with the ebullient Betsy.

The chilly tone is established in Brookner’s first paragraph.

We met, and became friends of a sort, by virtue of the fact that we started school on the same day.  Because we had the same Christian name it was decreed that she should choose an alternative.  For some reason–largely, I think, because she was influenced by the sort of sunny children’s books available in our milieu–she decided to be known as Betsy.  When we met up again, several years later, she was Betsy de Sainte-Jourre.  Not bad for a girl initially registered as Elizabeth Newton.

In the 1950s, the motherless Betsy tries too hard with Elizabeth’s mother, who despises her, partly because she despises Betsy’s father, a doctor, known for an excruciating mistake that killed a patient.  Soon the doctor himself dies, and the orphaned Betsy continues to live with her spinster aunt.   Betsy and the aunt go to the cinema for excitement on Saturday night.  Elizabeth despises them.

As adults, Elizabeth and Betsy grow apart, but are unprepared for the sixties.  They had the fifties dreams of marriage and family.  Elizabeth takes a cooking class in Paris and spends her leisure walking alone and going to foreign films; Betsy goes to university to study languages and, while living in Paris, marries a very handsome radical activist.  Meanwhile, Elizabeth marries Digby, a stolid, much older friend of her parents.  At the wedding, Betsy widens her eyes when she sees Elizabeth’s unattractive husband.  (There are moments when we dislike Betsy for widening her eyes, though she is the more likable of the two friends.)  Elizabeth does not, cannot, love Digby.  But she is very comfortable in their flat.

So it would seem that Betsy is the more adventurous of the two, as well as the more emotional.  But Elizabeth, who is honest  and critical, but perhaps not an altogether reliable narrator, does not see it that way.  She sees herself as smart and Betsy as the failure.

Surprisingly, Elizabeth has an affair with one of Digby’s friends, the beautiful Edmund Fairlie.  She suspects his wife, Constance, knows all about it, because they meet at Edmund’s flat, obviously rented for his affairs.  Elizabeth lies to Digby:  she says she is taking evening classes. She reads so much that he doesn’t question this.  During Digby’s vacation, she makes an error:  she picks up a book at random, she thinks, and it is Madame Bovary.  She immediately feels uncomfortable and puts it down.  Digby picks it up.

“You won’t like that,” I warned him.

“I never have liked it.  It’s a woman’s book, really.”

“Yet it was written by a man.”

“Yes, only a man would have killed her off.”

“She died because she had got into debt,” I reminded him coldly.

That’s Elizabeth all over.

Digby dies of a stroke.  He does not want to die in the hospital, and she does not call a doctor.  Then she  breaks off her affair with Edmund.  She is very much alone. When Betsy, also widowed, after her unstable husband dies in an accident, she comes back to London and, eerily, takes up Elizabeth’s life.  Edmund is attracted to Betsy, and they have an affair.  But this is not all:  she tries to insinuate herself into his family life with Constance and the children.

Elizabeth views all this with despair.  She sees what Edmund is doing, and knows Betsy still longs for a family.

Later, when Betsy is ill, Elizabeth begins to understand Betsy, the significance of her being an orphan.  She grimly realizes their real problem:  childlessness.

What united us, Betsy and I, in this strangest of pairings, was the fact that we had never had children, and that we had therefore failed the one essential test that all women feel obliged to pass.  Even celibates measure their success or failure by this standard, and those who remain childless through their lives wonder what faculty has been lacking to bring this about.  Yet neither of us had been maternal in our outlook, though Betsy gazed fondly on any child she encountered.  She was, perhaps, too busy being her own child, the child she had to nurture in the absence of anyone else able or willing to do so.  As for myself, I saw any potential children as an impediment to my freedom, for at the back of my mind I kept in readiness a plan of flight from circumstances I could no longer tolerate.

It is for Brookner’s brilliant insights that one reads. I am fascinated by doubles:  we all have one, don’t we?  And I am childless.  I have always admired working mothers:  how on earth can they go to work,  raise the children, and then even read at night?  Sometimes I look back and realize that a whole alternate life would have unfolded had if I had been careless with birth control.  But I was not particularly maternal, and was horrified by friends who complained the only time they were  alone was in the shower.

I need my solitude.

This is one of Brookner’s best.

Dolly by Anita Brookner

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                                 Anita Brookner

Anita Brookner’s death last week at the age of 87 has prompted a “Brookner-thon” at my house.  I can read one of her short elegant books in a day, and this week I have raced through Dolly and A Closed Eye.  

Brookner is a stunning writer, reminiscent of Henry James.  I am astonished by the crystalline quality of her prose.   She wrote 24 novels, and I took her for granted:  I had been looking for the new Brookner.  I never thought of her getting older.  I only thought of my need to read her exquisite, perfectly shaped sentences.

When I read her books as a young woman, I was enthralled by her accounts of independent women.  Now I love the books, but also find them painful.  Her heroines are usually single, emotionally remote, and shut out of everyday relationships.  They spend their time reading David Copperfield and wandering through art museums in London.  (Brookner was also an art historian.)   Perhaps I understand these heroines better now that I am older, and even better because I have finally visited London.  I have seen the paintings that fascinate her heroines. I know some of the neighborhoods.

dolly anita brookner 9780394224381-uk-300Dolly, published in 1993, is a small masterpiece, much more complex than her early work.   It explores the relationship between Jane, a  young woman, and her Aunt Dolly, who turns out to be a hustler.   The narrator, Jane Manning, a very quiet writer of children’s books, grew up in a peaceful household in London:  her well-to-do parents, Paul and Henrietta, read for recreation and certainly did not go in for luxury. Hence Jane is fascinated when her exuberant, well-dressed Aunt Dolly, who lives for bridge, dancing, and  social engagements, breezes in from Brussels with Uncle Hugo, a former mama’s boy now very much under Dolly’s thumb.  Dolly isn’t very nice to the Mannings:  essentially she stole Hugo from his mother and considers his sister, Henrietta, a nonentity. Henrietta anxiously tries to please the couple by taking them to dinner at the Ritz, but Dolly  is accustomed to the best restaurants and bored.  Dolly and Hugo go out in the evenings to play bridge:  Dolly is frantic when she learns that Henrietta and Paul do not play.  Henrietta explains they prefer to read.

“Oh, read,” said Dolly.  “Well, of course, I am a great reader myself, but in our circle one has to mix, otherwise one would know no one.”

“I suppose you have a great many friends,” said my mother.

“Yes, I can certainly say that we are well liked.  Not that we mix too much with the expatriate community, except for bridge, of course.  Our dear friend Adele Rougier is the one we see most constantly.  Her husband was our ambassador to Zaire, you know….”

I find this dialogue both comical and heartbreaking.  Dolly is so snobbish, yet she reads romances and is oblivious of the Mannings’ different values.  I find Henrietta’s supposition that Dolly has  friends poignants.  Jane, who sees all this,  regards  Dolly as a monster, and Dolly dismisses her because she is quiet, intelligent, and dully dressed.  But after Hugo’s death, Dolly, who was raised in France by her mother, a Jewish dressmaker who sewed for the neighborhood prostitutes and was saved during the Occupation by these women’s relationships with Nazis, now is unwilling to be deprived of luxury.  She decides her best bet is to live with Hugo’s rich mother, who sends her packing with a small allowance.  Dolly is an opportunist:  she borrows money often from Henrietta.  But after Henrietta’s death, Jane begins to understand Dolly better.

The British edition.

The British edition of Dolly.

I love Jane, but she breaks my heart.   She is content with her routine, her job at a cuttings agency, her walks, and her books.  After her parents die, her only real friend is John Pickering, her parents’ solicitor. After the cuttings agency closes, she writes her first children’s book and studies fairy tales.  When she speaks on “Sleeping Beauty” at small American women’s colleges, she prefers the middle-aged women in their fifties to her feminist peers.   Although the feminists worry about sexual harassment and study gender in 1950s melodrama, they turn out to be “reconstructed” when they learn Jane doesn’t have a husband.   They regard her lack of a relationship with a man as a failure, much as Dolly does.

Jane writes,

It is not that they would necessarily want me to find love and marriage, in the sense of a happy ending. But if I were sharing household chores with some cheerful fellow in jeans and a shirt ironed by himself they could understand me better.  How then to disappoint them by telling them that I prefer the fairy-tale version, and will prefer it till I die, even though I may be destined to die alone?

Brookner is so quietly barbed it almost went past me.  “Some cheerful fellow in jeans and a shirt ironed by himself”:  didn’t we all marry him?  I know that Jane’s solitude is not as hard for Jane as it would be for some of us, but it is not easy, either.  Surely women who live alone find it easier if they have friends.  But Dolly has friends who are not real friends:  she is lonely.  And  Jane’s coming to terms with Dolly is perhaps the loveliest thing in this graceful, pitch-perfect novel.

Quotation of the Week: Anita Brookner on Reading

The Debut anita brookner 51Z+1pq0N7L._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_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.