Book Review: A Closed Eye by Anita Brookner

Having now read A Closed Eye, I have only one of Anita Brookner’s 24 novels left to read. Hopefully the prolific 82-year old Brookner will keep writing, but as her output slows (she no longer writes a novel a year) I have come to a certain pre-emptive peace with the reality that it can’t go on forever. One of the reasons for my sanguinity is that her shortish novels are all so packed with nuance and emotion that they seem like the perfect books for re-reading.

I have often commented that I am not so good at distinguishing between Brookner’s novels. On the surface they all seem to be very similar. Inevitably the characters are loners who seem to get a sort of exquisitely painful pleasure out of their self-imposed isolation and their inability to connect emotionally with those around them. They all speak at least a little French, usually have flats in London, spend the majority of their time walking the streets, and seem to be waiting for sleep and/or death.

All of these things are present in A Closed Eye, yet I think it is the most different of all Brookner’s novels. Protagonist Harriet Lytton rages against the inertia of life like no other Brookner character in my memory. But true to Brookner’s fach, Harriet’s rage is silent and largely unacted upon. So intensely does she want her daughter Imogen to capture all the life she herself has missed that she fails to do anything about her own situation. She accepts, in fact encourages (albeit silently), Imogen becoming spoiled, self-centered, and insufferably intolerant of her. And although, like most other Brookner heroines, Harriet’s life is once of complacency, surrounded by death and depression and feelings of helplessness and hopelessness, she does at least have old school friends that form a support network. And Harriet makes at least one bold move that separates her from the typical Brookner model. And in the end–so subtle that one could miss it–there is a glimmer of hope.

There is something about these bleak books that not only fascinate me but comfort me as well. I recognize that there is something about the isolation that I find alluring. But I have opined before that I am also drawn to these characters because they are cautionary tales. Perfect examples of what I don’t want to become. A typically bleak scene:

Suddenly there was nothing for her to do. Freddie ate lunch out, so she made do with a sandwich. She could have taken a long walk, for in the early days of her marriage she had keenly regretted her lost liberty, but now that she was older she preferred to stay indoors and look out of the window. There was little to see in the quiet square; few people passed, and if she saw anyone she knew she retreated instinctively.

So what of the plot? There is one, there always is with Brookner. But the details and the emotions are so much the point that plot doesn’t really matter. And for once I have an answer to the question: “Which Brookner should I start with?” I have never been able to answer this before because of the sameness of Brookner’s novels. For those that think you would be predisposed to like this kind of book, you can start anywhere. But for those of you who aren’t sure, you should start with A Closed Eye. It contains enough action that it could unwittingly ease you into the depressing, but cosy, warm-bath-water-world of Brookner’s fiction. Like slipping into a coma.

On the other hand if you are prone to depression you might want to steer clear of Brookner entirely.

(And for reading fiends out there this one has lots of little references to literary works.)


9 thoughts on “Book Review: A Closed Eye by Anita Brookner

  1. Francine Gardner November 26, 2010 / 8:52 am

    This novel is actually on my nightstand…Anita brookner is with Wallace Stegner my favorite contemporary american fiction writer and i have read most of their work.


  2. mel u November 26, 2010 / 9:35 am

    In the last 2 years I have read 2 Brookner's-to me I want to read about one a year-they stay with me for long time-I agree with you completely as not for those prone to depression!


  3. harriet November 26, 2010 / 11:34 am

    I've tried a couple of Brookners and not got on well with them at all — I am amazed someone would read all of them, especially when you admit they are all the same! Still, different strokes for different folks as they say.


  4. Thomas at My Porch November 27, 2010 / 8:20 am

    Francine: I loved Crossing to Safety and liked Angle of Repose, but for some reason, haven't been really pursuing Stegner's other work.

    Mel: There have been times when I have read more than one a year, but these days I tend to savor them more.

    Harriet: I can understand why you don't like her. When I first read one of her novels I felt the same way, but then they kind of grew on me.


  5. Mystica November 27, 2010 / 9:10 pm

    I have read just one Brookner which was odd but which I really liked. Will have to find these as well.


  6. Coffee and a Book Chick November 28, 2010 / 9:06 pm

    I'm currently in process reading Hotel du Lac – I quite like it and am interested to see how the story continues to unfold. I wasn't aware that she is in her eighties and used to write a book a year. Quite an achievement, I must say.


  7. Thomas at My Porch November 30, 2010 / 1:51 pm

    Mystica: She wrote so many you should be able to find her pretty easily I would think.

    Coffee: Not only is she in her 80s now, but I think she had her first novel published when she was 53! She has written a few art history books before and since becoming a novelist. And I don't think I have every heard of a Brookner short story. She seems to have jumped right from non-fiction to novels.


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