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.)