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"
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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.)

Why harp on humor? Because it's overwhelmingly absent from The Bay of Angels, and because without it the bleakness of Brookner's outlook becomes almost as disturbing as her remoteness from the reader. How could she, I continue to wonder, have formed the impression that readers of Hotel du Lac were so enfeebled in good sense that they would believe that any marriage is better than none? Mr. Neville famously opens his offer of marriage to Edith in that novel with the information that he is "discriminating" and that he owns "a rather well-known collection of famille rose dishes." Forget the fact that nobody on this planet ever proposed in such terms; consider Brookner's view that people would have liked Edith much better if she had married Mr. Neville.

I'd be surprised if one reader felt that way. I'd beg Brookner to consider a little less austerity, a little less insistence. Her prose is matchless. Nobody writes better—if French, the language in which she immerses herself before writing, is your preferred tongue. The message these elegant sentences press home is as glacial as a north wind whistling over blocks of ice. Writing of the Goncourt brothers in Romanticism and Its Discontents, Brookner describes "their unflinching pessimism which cannot quite conceal a sorrowing outlook." The brothers were, she adds, "particularly distinguished martyrs, or monsters, in their chosen line of duty." The heroism she grants them, a heroism often painfully achieved by the protagonists of her novels, is of an apparently modest kind: the ability to view life without illusion. This is the goal she holds up, the moral end for which all pain, all tribulation, is worth enduring. No wonder, then, that Brookner despises Anthony Trollope's cheery conclusions and dotes on the melancholy ambiguity of Henry James. James never sacrificed a probable but unpleasant truth to make life more agreeable for his readers—but neither did he become so scarily zealous as Brookner in stripping away illusions.

Zoë Cunningham, the narrator of The Bay of Angels, is of this sad group of Brooknerines who must walk through a long, dark valley of clouded understanding in order to view the misty brilliance of a Turner sun, by which the novelist signifies moral illumination. But light in Brookner's world can be deceptive.

Zoë's name is not, apparently, ironic; as Brookner girls go, she is quite vivacious, and she has an observant eye that enables her swiftly to spot a moral flaw or a show of vanity in others; her mother's rich and well-meaning cousins are lambasted for being lazy, spoiled, and overattentive to their appearance. "Their visits were mercy visits," Zoë observes, "in the sense that there are mercy killings, with the same admixture of motives."

This acerbic comment is made stranger by the fact that Zoë is then being presented as an unworldly girl who believes that fairy tales are true and that happy endings always come to the virtuous. The ending she placidly anticipates is a perfect marriage for her long-widowed mother; it is, she thinks, right and normal that Mrs. Cunningham should spend the interim years resting in a chair instead of engaging in what her daughter dismisses as "some productive occupation." It is also thought quite normal that she herself should spend every evening, her homework done, staring out the window and watching the lights go on in other houses. (Suppress the urge to scream; this is Brookner's world, remember, not the real one.)

Zoë's expectations are rewarded at sixteen, when her mother meets, through the scorned cousins, the Prince Charming—for Zoë still thinks in storybook terms—who is to rescue them both. Simon Gould is genial, kind, and rich. Zoë observes that the cousins, although delighted to take her mother on some serious shopping expeditions for a trousseau, dislike the fact that they can no longer patronize her. Zoë loves Simon at once, and gladly accepts his gift of a London apartment—not bad for a sixteen-year-old. Her mother's new future is to be divided between an elegant part of Kensington (Brookner's characters always live above the purses of most of her readers) and Simon's more modern home on the outskirts of Nice.

The contrast between the shadows of London and the brilliance that bathes Les Mouettes, the house by the Bay of Angels, is carefully indicated. Deceived by it, Zoë can persuade herself that the fairy tale has come true and that the Nice house, ugly though it looks, is an appropriate reward. She is dazzled by the blaze of light that shows up the dimness of her sheltered past.

Simon Gould's abrupt death provides the moment of anagnorisis from which all disclosures will unfold. His wealth proves to have been as illusory as the security he seemed to offer. Zoë, abruptly ejected from Les Mouettes by its new and legally entitled owner, is reduced to renting a room over a postcard shop in Nice. From there she supervises the slow dwindling toward death of her mother, who is in a nearby home for invalid ladies in their declining years. Zoë, twenty going on sixty, lives for the weekly visits to her mother and for an occasional difficult conversation with the doctor who recommended, and who owns, the home.

The story is evidently connected to Brookner's own experience of caring for elderly parents until their deaths; it is, Zoë believes, the "common lot" of daughters to become parents to their mothers. She continues to seek independence and to speak as though she belonged to a modern age: she and her friends take a "militant stance," she tells us. No resignation for them: "We were at the cutting edge, fighting for equality. We had no time to rest from our labours."

It is here that Brookner comes badly unstuck. Nothing Zoë has said or goes on to say makes her a convincing candidate for this role. She seems, rather, to be another in the line of Brookner women whose values, working lives, interests, and habits equip them to have run splendid library programs in the 1950s. Zoë's conversation is as outlandish as that of an alien newly equipped with the English tongue. "You look quite personable in this light," she informs Antoine Balbi, the doctor to whom her mother was referred. Describing for him the life she might expect to lead in ten years' time, she can imagine nothing beyond shopping, cooking, reading, and a thankful closing of curtains. "By the evening I shall be frightened again, wondering how to pass the time." Balbi's offer of a cup of tea leads to a bizarre outburst. "I always feel that when a man spends money on you it is some sort of concession," Zoë declares. When Balbi explains that a tisane costs only a few francs, she accuses him of emotional parsimony. The reader will be startled to learn on the next page that, thanks to Balbi's calmness, Zoë regards this evening as "one of the best I had ever spent." It's hard to see why.

Dr. Balbi is not an exciting man. Still, if an angel does exist on the Baie des Anges (and Zoë is eager to find a story behind the name), he is plainly it—reserved, decent, sure of himself and of the fact that freedom is an illusion. It seems right that he should be the vehicle for Brookner's views and the conveyer of them to Zoë. The moment of revelation takes place, by careful authorial design, on the shore of the bay at night, to the sound of the retreating rattle of pebbles. This is the background music of Matthew Arnold's "Dover Beach," a poem that famously mourns the death of faith. Zoë's grief is for the relinquishing of her dependence on the illusions provided by literature: "I should have to live without such consoling fictions, as most people do," she declares. A little later in the same scene she praises those who choose to live with "unalterable truth," and she places her late mother among them, for reasons that are given but unclear.

This unflinching, pessimistic acceptance of life without promise is the grail toward which Brookner stealthily nudges her characters. There can be no doubt that Zoë has reached maturity. Her future sounds dreary. Dullness is irrelevant; what matters is that she has learned to live without illusion or expectation. Anna Durrant, at the end of Fraud, was allowed to retain hope; that is no longer part of the deal in 2001. Acceptance alone is now a sufficient goal.

The prospect is darkening, then, but Brookner's attitude remains consistent. She likes, and has never been ashamed to say that she prefers, a rational world; she has been unflagging, since her sparkling opening to A Start in Life ("Dr Weiss, at forty, knew that her life had been ruined by literature"), in her exposure of the dangers of using literature as a guide to life.

And yet where, one can't help wondering, would she be without it? The connections between Brookner's characters and those of the Victorian novels she so often cites are inescapably apparent. Lucy Snowe, the intense, smoldering heroine of Villette, has reappeared in different costumes, as Anna, Zoë, and all the rest of those quietly superior Brookner heroines who are so swift and merciless in judgment, so fiercely resistant to criticism. Lydgate and Rosamond Vincy, of Middlemarch, provided Brookner with models for the Hallidays in Fraud; Tom Rivers's connection to his semi-namesake in Jane Eyre is candidly owned in Falling Slowly (1998).

When Brookner returns to the continental world (in, for instance, Family and Friends [1985] and A Family Romance), her stories usually have a radiant freshness, her characters a rare glow of authenticity that bestows charm on even the least likable among them. This is not a tribute that can be paid to her new novel. When The Bay of Angels is closed, the reader will find that Zoë Cunningham and her mother become hard to distinguish from the pale army of mothers and daughters who cluster meekly behind them and from whom I, for one, have received enough moral education to dampen my admiration for the clinical purity of Brookner's prose, her magnificent vocabulary, and the dreamless glare of her rational paradise.

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