[I’m up to number 18 in my chronological re-read of all of Anita Brookner’s 24 novels.]
If you said “falling slowly” to me I would be inclined to think of someone falling in love. In Falling Slowly we do indeed see Miriam Sharpe fall in love, not once, but twice (maybe), but I’m no so sure it was all that slowly and I’m even less sure the title refers to falling in love. I’m more inclined to believe it’s about falling into a deep, comfortable, numbing, rut that leads to nowhere but death. Excited? By all means read on.
As I have worked my way through re-reading of Brookner’s novels, I have found more going on in her novels than I perceived the first time. And I have gotten away from thinking of her output as a monolith of quietly and comfortably tragic people just waiting to die. But then along comes Falling Slowly, a poster child for the Brooknerian stereotype. Those who don’t know my love for Brookner, might think this declaration is tantamount to criticism. Far from of it. I love every little thing about the way Brookner dives deep into exploring loneliness and resignation making them feel like cozy, warm, blankets. Sure, blankets that will slowly snuff the life right out of you, but cozy nonetheless.
At its heart, Falling Slowly seems to be about Miriam finding out what being in love really feels like. Unlike other relationships in her life (like her short-lived marriage) there isn’t anything safe or sure about being in love. Miriam falls in love with Simon, but it seemed kind of fast to me. And after that she appears to fall in love with Tom more slowly, but does she? And is that what all of this is about anyway? No, as I mentioned earlier, I think Falling Slowly is about falling slowly into acceptance of one’s fate. As is typical with Brookner, there seem to be many opportunities for her characters to alter their fates, but as I get older I see more and more how fate is not something we can see at close range. It creeps up on us even when we think we might be avoiding it. It’s like the proverbial (and apocryphal) frog calmly getting boiled to death. We see it with Miriam’s mother who accepts her fate once she is moved into a nursing home. We see it in Beatrice who accepts her slide into death after she stops performing professionally. We see it in Max Gruber who seeks to slide into his fate in a way that would be amenable to his wishes, but in the end ends up sliding into a country apart from the one he imagined. And of course we see it in Miriam herself.
After a trip short trip to Paris that was cut even shorter than expected (this seems to happen a lot in Brookner, trips to Paris to work out some sort of emotional cobweb are almost always cut short) Miriam’s “rebirth” is astonishing in its moribundity (this needs to be a word):
At Waterloo, her usual neutral smile in place, the usual courtesies offered and accepted, the usual immaculate appearance adjusted, she took her first steps into a world in which she perceived the possibility of being denied essential information, a world in which silence was commonplace, and absence a forgone conclusion.
Have you ever felt that way after a mini-break? And this is with almost 90 pages to go.
I came across one line that made me do a bit of a double take. Almost like an alien popping out very briefly from Brookner’s immaculate, polite mind only to retreat as quickly as it appeared. After spying her love object in a restaurant with another woman Miriam describes her:
The girl, meek, her eyes cast down, like a heifer, was beautiful.
For those who don’t need to be convinced to pick up a Brookner but might want to differentiate between her two dozen novels, I suppose I could point out that Miriam is a translator of French books who spends her work day at the London Library. And central to the story is her sister Beatrice who is/was a classical piano accompanist. Not to mention a few fabulous descriptions of paintings, masterfully done by art historian Brookner. So if that is your bag, then this is your bag.
[I’ve updated my Gazetteer of London place names in Brookner’s novels. Only six more re-reads and it will be complete.]
I love your London place names re: Brookner books. I’ve only read Hotel du Lac which I enjoyed and I have A Private View unread on my shelves. I always enjoy your posts.
Just six more to re-read then I have will have all the place names on the list. I can’t wait until I have all the data together.
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Reading your wonderful review reminds me how much I enjoy Brookner and that I need to read more. Thank you.
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Have just had a look at your gazetteer Thomas, and thought you’d like to know that 130 Colindale Avenue was where the British Library used to keep its historic newspaper collection, and had its newspaper reading room. This closed in 2013. The papers are now stored in Yorkshire, and can be ordered for viewing at the main library at St Pancras, but many are now also available online.
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A few years ago you did a podcast with Simon that I would listen to and I remember you raved about Anita Brookner. At the time I didn’t get to any of them but I decided this year I would read them in order of publication and I’m enjoying them immensely. I’ve purchased the first twelve and will get the rest of them before next January. Thanks for the tip. Her writing and language is superb.
That is *extremely* exciting to hear. I’m glad you are enjoying them. Years ago I owned maybe five or six of them, but then I was in a used bookstore in Philadelphia and they had eight hardcover titles for a few dollars a piece. Best purchase I ever made.
As I was reading your post, I immediately remembered a book similar in feel and now that I’ve gone back to find it, I see that it’s by the same author! What are the chances of that? The Brookner I read was Strangers. https://bookchatter.net/2011/09/28/review-strangers/ At the time I said I was going to look for more of her books but I have not. I need to because I really like this type of writing.
LOL. I’m not surprised given how similar her books can feel. I went back and looked at your review and realized that I commented on it back in 2011 and included your review on the International Anita Brookner Day site. http://brooknerday.blogspot.com/p/book-review-index.html
I think this is the one where I gave up on her because the characters were getting too close to me in age and pulling me too far down. Hm. Still love her early ones, though.
I can understand that. But I’m definitely in the mood for them at the moment. I just started another one.
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Thomas–I have enjoyed reading everything you have written about Brookner, having recently finished reading the complete fiction. Am now at work on her art history essays, some of which are really literary essays. Thanks for running your blog, which is (for me) a much needed sounding board on this rare individual. Do you know if a biography of her is in the works?
I know of no bio in the works. In fact, I am continually surprised by people in her personal and professional circles being so mum about her. No doubt she would probably have appreciated that.