Being polite about Nazis

IMG_0384[Number 8 in my chronological re-read of all of Brookner’s 24 novels.]

In Latecomers, Anita Brookner strays away from her more typical solitary protagonist and gives us an ensemble cast. There are life-long friends and business partners Hartmann and Fibich, their wives Yvette and Christine (respectively), and their children Marianne and Toto (respectively). The emotional center of the book, and what there is of a plot, definitely revolve around Hartmann and Fibich. The chronology starts with them. Thrown together as youths when refugee Fibich comes to live with Hartmann and his aunt, the two become like brothers, go into business together, and end up living in the same apartment building for all their adult lives. In the meantime both acquire wives and one child each.

Despite this symmetry, it’s clear Hartmann is the one in charge. It’s his aunt who raises them. He is the first to get married. The one to find and buy a flat and then eventually grab one in the same building for Fibich and his wife. And the one who is, or at least appears to be, the steadier of the two. More certain of himself, more confident in business, love, and family, and less troubled by his past. Their wives reinforce the power dynamic. Hartmann’s wife Yvette is one of those people who demands attention. Pretty, elegantly put together, coquettish, and seemingly bent on becoming the boss’ wife. Paying only enough attention to her duties at Hartmann and Fibich’s office to keep her job long enough to hook and marry Hartmann. I don’t think she necessarily set out to seduce him but her flirtatious nature and desire to be set up in a life, far from the world of her mother’s reduced circumstances, made it a bit inevitable.

Christine on the other hand is the hired help in Hartmann’s aunt’s house–although her implied intellect and class status, if not her actual duties, make her feel more like a ladies’ companion than a maid. When she helps Fibich nurse the aunt through her final illness, the two become close and eventually marry and move into the flat Hartmann has found for them in his building.

And then the children happen. Marianne seems a bit quieter, less sure of herself, and less glamorous than Hartmann and Yvette. And Toto is confident to the point of arrogance which makes him feel decidedly different than Fibich and Christine.

In some ways I expected Latecomers to have a little more to say about the lives of the two children and the contrast with their respective parents. Instead the novel has much more to do with Fibich trying to make sense of his past. He becomes increasingly discomfited by all that he can’t remember of his short childhood in Germany and the parents who were lost to him at the hands of the Nazis. Hartmann’s family was similarly impacted but with much less effect on Hartmann’s life.

The fascinating thing about the way Brookner writes about the impacts of Nazism on Hartmann and Fibich is that she never mentions the Nazis or what they did. I think the only explicit mention is the blurb written by her publisher on the jacket flap. In the novel itself it is only hinted at in the most oblique ways. Not only are details or proper names never mentioned, but even the generic word atrocity would seem out of place. Brookner tends to do that–she will write in great detail about emotions, or small details, but the outside world, the one where news and history happen, never really comes up. To me, this is never a problem. Brookner has created a world that is less of an ahistorical bubble than it is a delivery system for deep personal feeling.

6 thoughts on “Being polite about Nazis

  1. heavenali October 31, 2015 / 10:52 am

    I love Anita Brookner and this is one of those I have yet to read. It sounds wonderful.

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  2. M Denise C October 31, 2015 / 4:33 pm

    I will have to get this one soon as it sounds really good. Thanks, Denise

    Like

  3. Jenny November 1, 2015 / 9:25 am

    Brookner is the best living novelist.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Liz Dexter November 4, 2015 / 4:28 am

    I don’t think I could do a chronological re-read of Brookner’s novels to be honest. I loved the early ones but as I draw into middle age, they are too close to home, too close to the bone, and I had to give up a few books back. I must re-read some early ones, though.

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    • Thomas November 19, 2015 / 8:23 am

      Liz, I’ve been contemplating how to respond to your comment for some weeks now. I’m 46 now and doing lots of musing on what was and could have been, and what still could be. When I was younger I considered Brookner’s novels to be cautionary tales–as in, be careful or you will end up depressed, and lonely, and just waiting for death. Now, 20 years after I read my first Brookner, although I have had a pretty fabulous ride since then, I feel I might be feeling the inexorable pull towards Brookner’s world. It’s hard to nurture relationships, habits, and life choices that set us up for ongoing happiness into old age. Now, as I write this I feel I’ve just given myself a pep talk. I still have plenty of time not to turn into a Brookner character.

      Regardless, I love her sad characters.

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  5. Michelle February 27, 2016 / 4:15 pm

    I’m happy to hear that you are planning to reread all of Anita Brookner’s novels as I am as well, although not in chronological order. I anxiously awaited each of her latest books to reach America each year and once I recall how happy I was when my father brought me from his trip to London her latest novel which had been published in England, but not here yet.

    I just reread “Latecomers” and I think that it is one of her most optimistic books, which is odd to say as it concerns two men who lost their parents when they were sent as children to England to escape Nazi Germany. I actually finished the novel with a smile on my face, which is not always the case when I read her books although she is probably my favorite author. I especially liked the sense of reconciliation and acceptance at the end of the book as both Hartmann and Fibich grow to accept where they ended up in life and how each grew to like, not just love their children. It seemed as though Marianne should have been Fibich’s daughter and Toto the son of Hartmann and Yvette, but as often happens in her novels, characters with opposing temperaments end up in the same family or as friends. But it worked out so well here.

    Having read a little of her background, I wondered if any of this was a bit autobiographical. And I absolutely agree what a wonderful job she did giving us the sense, in an understated but powerful way of how their past influenced their present. I thought it was brave of Fibich to travel to Berlin and so glad that it wasn’t as devastating as it could have been.

    i actually listened to this book as an Audible download and the reader who has a lovely British accent did a magnificent job.

    Thanks as well for the terrific job you do with The Readers podcast, which I look forward to listening to when each episode comes out.

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