Books June 2001

The Mistress of Gloom

Anita Brookner "has always been ready to strip her heroines of the illusion that they can actually get what they want"

Do not be deceived by the title of this book, or by the fact that much of Anita Brookner's twentieth novel, as lean in size and as unsparing in judgment as its predecessors, is illuminated by the brilliant sunshine of the French Riviera. Nor draw hope from the name of her young heroine: Zoë, signifying life. This is, even for Brookner, an unusually cheerless work, about the moral education of a young woman as assessed by herself in retrospect. The lesson she learns is that a wise woman expects nothing from life and will probably get it. Only a fool, Brookner suggests, would believe the lessons offered by the novels and fairy tales in which Zoë, like many of her predecessors, has rashly placed her trust. Poor girls who sit and wait to become princesses get nowhere. Ordeals may lead only to further suffering. There are no rewards for virtue beyond self-respect. Life is best viewed as a journey toward death, to be lived with attentive restraint.

This is the philosophy that Anita Brookner has been ably illustrating since 1981, when she published the slyly witty autobiographical novel A Start in Life (titled The Debut in this country), a work that deliberately played on the title of Honoré de Balzac's Un Début dans la Vie. Its heroine is Ruth Weiss, whose literary work—her subject is Balzac's women—invites comparisons between her personal situation and that of Balzac's poor Eugénie Grandet, the marooned victim of her own plainness and difficult parents. Ruth wishes to distance herself from Eugénie but cannot. Kitty Maule, in Providence (1982), Brookner's second novel, has a similar tussle with her destiny. "I do not want to be trustworthy, and safe, and discreet," she thinks to herself. "I do not want to be the one who understands and sympathises and soothes. I do not want to be reliable."

Dream on, Kitty: Brookner has always been ready to strip her heroines of the illusion that they can actually get what they want. The lesson delivered seems, with each successive novel, increasingly harsh in its predictability. The novelist's admirers nevertheless remain a stalwart bunch. Her art criticism, delivered most recently in the supremely elegant Romanticism and Its Discontents (2000), is thought by many to be old-fashioned and lacking in fire, although Brookner was highly enough regarded to be made, in 1968, the first woman Slade Professor of art at Cambridge. Her novels continue to win her praise on both sides of the Atlantic. In England her admirers have made enthusiastic comparisons to Jane Austen, Gustav Flaubert, Henry James, Anton Chekhov, and Barbara Pym. Those who are uncomfortable with her message take refuge in compliments on her purity of style (David Lodge) and "technical skill" (Sebastian Faulks). Others practice ambivalent praise: "How does she do it, time after time?" (A. N. Wilson). Her regular readers rejoice in the uncommon acuteness of her observations, the wicked accuracy and malice of her asides, the sinewy eloquence of her prose.

Moments like the one in which Edith Hope, of the Booker Prize—winning novel Hotel du Lac (1984), flees from her own wedding provide a sharp delight that time does not diminish. Is it unfair to grumble because such moments are now rare? Should readers try to separate their pleasure in the novels from the grim message those novels convey—that women cannot take life into their own hands; that accepting what they are offered is their best option? (Brookner has, of course, written about men from time to time, but it is the women who dominate her landscape, and they tend to be women of a type: forlorn figures who seem always to be looking for Henry James's bench of desolation on which to deposit their meekly skirted behinds for an afternoon of fruitless anticipation.)

Readers of her Undue Influence (1999) could be forgiven for supposing that Brookner, at last, had decided that her grim questions had been asked and answered, and that she was entering a golden period of benevolent wit. The tone was animated. A return to the temperate uplands of the first novels and—to name two of her best—Latecomers (1988) and A Family Romance (1993), which was published as Dolly in the United States, seemed to be in the offing. Reviewers rejoiced: we had missed the nuanced irony and deliciously unveiled self-deception of those works, in which Brookner's feline wit is most fetchingly displayed.

Undue Influence was one of Brookner's finest novels. Its successor, The Bay of Angels, is one of her most capriciously dissatisfying. Both are told in the first person by young women, but of very different characters. The earlier narrator, Claire Pitt, leads the usual modest Brookner life—she works in a bookshop run by two timid, well-bred ladies, has one similarly inactive female friend, and spends her time poring over 1950s women's magazines. Claire is mildly pitiful; like most Brookner heroines, she is conscious of this, and thus pre-empts any easy sense of superiority on the part of the reader. Her self-consciousness is, indeed, precisely what makes her such enjoyable company. She is delightfully capable of mocking her passion for the illustrations in magazines of the postwar period, for loving the strange coziness of the gloved and hatted wives who stand at ease beside their garden gates, ready to do the morning shopping. This is Claire's private indulgence; in other respects she is a skeptic, as rational as her creator. She can mock religion, one of Brookner's favorite targets: how, she asks, had such an angry Father had such a "charming Son?" She can even, unusually for a Brookner woman, express unapologetic dislike for a parent, her father. (Mothers, however trying, remain above reproach.)

Claire believes she is worldly and astute, but Brookner has a strange relish for humiliating her heroines in the good cause of teaching them a useful lesson. Claire—like Fay Langdon, in Brief Lives (1990); like Rachel, in A Friend From England (1987); like Kitty Maule, in Providence; and like Edith Hope, in Hotel du Lac—is punished for her inability to see things as they are. Like her predecessors, she combines a sharp eye for faults in others with an astonishing obliviousness of how others may perceive, or choose to use, her. The moment of dramatic disclosure in Brookner's novels is often the payoff, the entertainment that allows the reader a smile at the heroine's expense. One might question the propriety of such a device by such a scrupulous writer, but it undeniably provides exquisite, if chilly, amusement.

To suggest that Brookner is a comic writer might seem perverse; she is, after all, celebrated as the mistress of gloom, the creator of a claustrophobic, overfurnished world in which heat is always oppressive, in which a cup of warm milk offers a welcome conclusion to a slow day of perambulation, in which rejection usually leads to physical decline, and in which anything so robust as physical exercise is roundly condemned. (One grandmother, in A Family Romance, is athletically inclined, but she is not praised for it and is further indicted by accounts of her attachment to a religious institute.) But wit is also a Brookner attribute, and though she has disdainfully criticized Jane Austen for having sacrificed passion to the pleasure of entertaining her readers, Brookner's own humor is of the same swift and aphoristic style: a fast, lethal swipe with claws extended at an unwary target. Examples? They're easily supplied. From Romanticism and Its Discontents: "Poetic sensibility is not one of God's better-known attributes." From Hotel du Lac: "She was a handsome woman of forty-five, and would remain so for many years." From A Start in Life, on the potential that the leisurely days of college-based academics provide for a second career as murderers: "plenty of time to plan the coup." Although Brookner is an unconvincing and stilted writer of dialogue, there are a few splendid exchanges in scenes of sitcom horror. We could cite the eponymous Lewis Percy's first tea with his intended, Tissy Harper, and her terrifying, chain-smoking mother, during which he attempts to praise Mrs. Harper's baking skills. There is the gruesomely funny conversation that ensues in Fraud (1992) when Lawrence Halliday decides to do penance for a bad conscience by asking Anna Durrant home for dinner with his wife. (Vickie Halliday, after recoiling from Anna's fox-fur coat, nearly kills her off with an unpleasantly animated fish stew.)

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