I thought I knew Anita Brookner. Before reading Providence I had read all but 3 of her 24 novels and was fairly confident in the knowledge of what I would find when opening any given Brookner. Without exception her novels are somewhat thin volumes with direct, spare language that focus more on internal thoughts than any external action. Her characters are usually financially secure, upper middle class, academically inclined loners, often without the need of work, who seem to drift from one emotional disappointment to another. Or more accurately, who drift around a single emotional disappointment for 200 or so pages. Her characters never really quite experience tragedy, but the entire arc of their lives could usually and fairly be characterized as tragic.
Describing her work as predictable and depressing could give one the idea that I don’t like Brookner’s work, which isn’t the case at all. And there are some who may think I overstate the case or am entirely off base. I know I am certainly oversimplifying, but to me, after reading 21 of her novels over the course of the past 15 years, I have never really thought much differently than what I describe here. Brilliant, powerful books, but also brilliantly and beautifully depressing. I often describe Brookner’s characters as people who never act but are rather acted upon. Usually solitary women who suffer from almost crippling emotional intertia. Joy or happiness are not words I would apply to Brookner’s work.
So I was more than a little surprised in this, Brookner’s second novel, to discover a world that seemed to me to be very different than any other Brookner I have read. All the emotional paralysis and sad, lonely characters are in place, but in Providence Brookner has created a character who actually attempts to make something happen in her life. Kitty Maule is a scholar of the Romantic period and is profoundly, and mostly unrequitedly, in love with a colleague and she is determined to seal the deal.
But the more I thought about it, the more I began to understand that despite Kitty actively trying to shape her future and develop some outward momentum, her emotional momentum doesn’t really keep up. Little of the external realities seem to impact her internal reality. So maybe this Brookner, at least at a fundamental level, is not really so different after all. But the details of Kitty’s daily life certainly feel different than most of Brookner’s other sad protagonists. At least in this one I’m wasn’t silently yelling at the character to take the bull by the horns. Well, at least not as much as usual.
Reading this, you might think that I don’t really like this (or any other) Brookner character, but there are at least two things that really make me enjoy them. The first is that I like reading about their solitary existence because it appeals to the OCD loner in me. Despite all their angst, their worlds are quite tidy and well ordered. But orderly lives can be lonely lives. The overweening need for peace and quiet and unruffled feathers can often lead to a detachment from others that is ultimately not terribly fulfilling. So the part of me that isn’t basking in the peace of solitude of a Brooknerian life is standing on a proverbial table shouting at the characters to engage life before it is too late. I think I love them because they are cautionary tales for my own life. A “there but for the grace of God go I” sort of thing.
I have no doubt that if Anita Brookner were to read this “review” she would probably sue me for malpractice. I am sure she didn’t write these brilliant, wonderfully nuanced books to have them reduced to “she writes about sad people”. But, there it is. I love her anyway. I guess when you are famous you don’t get to choose your fans.
(And speaking of sacrilegious literary exegesis, I read one analysis of this novel in a book called Understanding Anita Brookner by Cheryl Alexander Malcolm. I know that my analysis might be crap, but I sure didn’t agree with Ms. Malcolm’s take that the whole thing was just about Kitty trying to fit in and be English.)
So tell me, why you haven’t read any Anita Brookner yet? You will either love her or hate her, but you need to find out sometime.