Book Review: Look at Me by Anita Brookner


I haven’t read any Anita Brookner since last year’s rather successful International Anita Brookner Day. Having finished all of Brookner’s 24 novels, my intention is to re-read all of them in chronological order. Last year for IABD, I knocked off her first two novels The Debut (A Start in Life) and Providence. As much as I have liked all of Brookner’s novels on the first go, I found last year when I re-read those first two, that I liked them even more on a second read. Now with her third novel, Look at Me, I find myself of the same disposition. In fact, I think that Brookner’s novels which can seem superficially similar, have a depth that really makes them worth a second read–and frankly, I can imagine going back to them again and again for the rest of my life. This is especially comforting since, the once prolific Brookner (at one point a novel a year for about 20 years) seems to have slowed down considerably.

Frances Hinton, who hates being called Fanny, is always called Fanny. She works in a medical research library and like many other Brookner heroines, is miserably comfortable with her routine. That is until Dr. Nick Fraser and his wife Alix decide to make her a part of their social life.

If I moved in with them I would be delivered from the silence of Sundays, and all those terrible public holidays – Christmas, Easter – when I could never, ever, find an adequate means of using up all the available time.

Unlike many other Brookner heroines, Fanny comes to life as a result of this friendship and even starts seeing a doctor, James, who makes her happy.

Although I am naturally pale, I could feel the blood warm in my cheeks. I drew no conclusion from this, and my instinct was correct. I was not falling in love. Nor was there any likelihood that I might. But I was being protected, and that was something that I had not experienced for as long as I could remember. I was coming first with someone, as I had not done for some sad months past, and in my heart of hearts for longer, much longer.

Fanny’s benign desire for someone to finally pay attention to her is ultimately overtaken by Alix’s much less benign, somewhat pathological need to have everyone looking at her instead. Alix uses Fanny for her own amusement and doesn’t seem to mind the results. Fanny reflects on her relationship with Alix:

I was an audience and an admirer; I relieved some of her frustration; I shared her esteem for her own superiority; and I was loyal and well-behaved and totally uncritical. Yet she found me dull, intrinsically dull, simply because I was loyal and well-behaved and uncritical.

And it is Alix’s need to be at the center of attention that makes her more of a taker than a giver. Alix may have introduced Fanny to James, and enjoyed watching their relationship develop. But when she thinks she is being denied all the details of the results of her matchmaking, or worse, when she realizes that Fanny isn’t letting the relationship with James go where Alix thinks it should go, she begins to drive a wedge between Fanny and James. In many ways there is nothing unusual about this story, I think we have all been subjected to the cruel selfishness of so-called friends, and we have all been jilted in romantic relationships. But for Fanny the situation is life changing in a way that she struggles against. She sees her life going in a direction that seems inevitable despite her efforts to alter course.

I could have been different, I think. Once I had great confidence, great cheerfulness; I did not question my purpose or the purpose of others. All that had gone, and I had done my best to replace it. I had become diligent instead of spontaneous; I had become an observer when I saw that I was not allowed to participate. I had refused to be pitiable. I had never once said, Look at me. Now, it seemed I must make one more effort, one more attempt to prove myself viable. And if I succeeded, I might be granted one more opportunity to do it all over again. I did not dare to think what would happen if I failed.

Does she fail? If you have every read Brookner, you probably know the answer to that.

IABD: PRIZES and the Final Recap


Thanks to all of you who participated in International Anita Brookner Day. I had a lot of fun seeing what you all came up with and was gratified that so many of you had a positive experience. And I still have hope for those who weren’t instant fans. Many of the qualms that some had with the Anita Brookner novel they read and reviewed didn’t stem from Brookner’s writing ability but rather from disappointment in her characters. And therein lies my reason for hope. When I first read Brookner I was not just disappointed with ther characters I was frustrated as all get out. I mean really, who are these passive, depressed people. But I found that those people kind grew on me. I never wanted to be them, and still don’t, but I became fascinated in reading about them.  This isn’t to suggest that those of you who wrote less than positive reviews are all going to become fans, but it is to suggest that your journey with Anita may not be over.

And speaking of that journey. Anytime you post a review of a Brookner novel, just let me know and I will include it on the IABD blog and archive.

On to the prizes:

Best Review: Danilo Abacahin
He doesn’t blog, but based on this review he should. I particularly liked the way he organized his review around the reactions he had recorded in his diary while he read Undue Influence.

Best non-Review: Peta Mayer
Peta’s list of 10 Things to Expect from a Brookner Novel was insightful and funny. It confirmed some things I already thought (the walking) and made me ponder some things I hadn’t (eros).

Best Picture of a Pet Reading Brookner: Julia at Pages of Julia
Of course all of the pet pictures were cute as can be. But the one that really stood out was Julia’s. Her cute pooches are clearly Brookner fans.

Participation Prize: Ted at Bookeywookey

Special Prize for inspring the judges to come up with another prize: Jack at The Windy Sea of Land
Simon suggested that Jack deserved a prize for starting a blog just to join in IABD. I totally agreed and so we created another prize category just for him.

You have until August 8th to pick a paperback (any paperback, it doesn’t have to be Anita Brookner) and email me with your choice and your mailing address. onmyporch [at] hotmail [dot] com

If you are outside the US you can make your choice from The Book Depository. If you are in the US you can choose from TBD or Barnes and Noble.

The Recap
We ended up with 31 reviews of 14 novels. Did you ever see that skit on Sesame Street where everyone ended up bringing potato salad to the picnic. Well, Hotel du Lac was the potato salad of IABD.

The Bay of Angels (2001)
Michelle Foong
Wendy Mayer

A Closed Eye (1991)
My Porch

Family and Friends (1985)
The Truth About Lies

Hotel du Lac (1984)
Another Cookie Crumbles
Boston Bibliophile
Fig and Thistle
Novel Insights
Pages of Julia Blog
Savidge Reads
Stuck in a Book

Incidents in the Rue Laugier (1995)
Books and Chocolate
Erich Mayer
Roses Over a Cottage Door

Leaving Home (2005)
A Book Sanctuary
Luvvie’s Musings

Lewis Percy (1989)

Look at Me (1983)
Nonsuch Book
Savidge Reads

The Next Big Thing (2002)
Luvvie’s Musings

A Private View (1994)
This Windy Sea of Land

Providence (1982)
My Porch

The Rules of Engagement (2003)
Park Benches & Bookends
Silencing the Bell
Telecommuter Talk

A Start in Life (1981)
Citizen Reader
My Porch
Savidge Reads

Undue Influence (1999)
Danilo Abacahin

Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon

In the lead up to IABD I was making all kinds of tenuous connections between my posts and Anita Brookner. After reading Peta’s much deeper analysis of connections between Brideshead Revisited and Anita Brookner, I  began thinking about the Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon game.

Are you familiar with the Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon game? To play, all you have to do is link any celebrity to Kevin Bacon within six degrees. I read an article years ago in The New Yorker that posited that this game works with Kevin Bacon because he has been in such a variety of projects and had not been typecast. The article stated that someone who made many more films and was far more famous, like John Wayne, won’t necessarily fare as well in the Six Degrees game because their were work was more specialized.

So I thought how many degrees of separation between Kevin Bacon and Anita Brookner. Using Diana Quick from the Brideshead post as a possible starting point, it was far easier than I thought it would  be to connect these two dots. I bet there are other connections as well. Perhaps this will be a regular feature.

Kevin Bacon

Was in Where the Truth Lies with Colin Firth

Who was in (the sappy) Love Actually with Bill Nighy

Who was in a 27-year relationship with Diana Quick

Who voiced an audiobook of Anita Brookner’s Undue Influence

 That’s only 5 degrees of separation. Can you do better?

Happy International Anita Brookner Day

Just like New Year’s Eve, Anita Brookner’s Birthday and IABD have arrived in most of the world ahead of us here in the U.S.

First off Happy Birthday to Ms Brookner. I wonder what she has planned for the day. Describing that could have been one of the contests for the day. And I suppose you still could since there is a prize for best non-review post.
Second, I hope the rest of you enjoy IABD. The reviews are coming in from all over and are being posted on the IABD blog as I get them. If you have posted one, or have one to post, please make sure you let me know about it.

Third, here is my entry for pictures of pets reading Anita Brookner. It’s a good thing I don’t qualify for the prize being an organizer, because my picture is not all that good. Lucy seemed more interested in the foot traffic on the sidewalk than she was in the book.  I will post other pet pictures on Sunday.

That’s Lucy not reading Providence.

Book Review: Providence by Anita Brookner

Never before have I re-read a novel so soon after the original read. But since I am re-reading all of Brookner’s novels in chronological order, Providence was the next one in the pile—even though I read it for the first time just over a year ago. Even more unusual for me is to write another review for the same book without just saying “ditto”. But second reads give us so much more to think about, so this won’t be too challenging. Right?

Kitty Maule is a lecturer whose specialty is the Romantic tradition. Her unrequited love for her colleague Maurice sets up a cognitive dissonance between the independence and drive that helped propel her career, with the urge to set it all aside for the privilege of being Maurice’s wife. In her professional life, Kitty leads three students through a close reading of the novel Adolphe written in 1806 by Benjamin Constant. The “action” in Providence includes classroom discussions of Adolphe and the Romantic tradition which are easy enough to take in without knowing anything, or much, about either. But, as Providence would have it, just as I was finishing up my re-read of Providence I got my delivery of the 37 novellas that make up The Art of the Novella series from Melville House Publishing. And amongst those 37 volumes was none other than Adolphe by Benjamin Constant. And even though I was meant to save these novellas for August when I will be participating in TAOTN challenge, how could I not read Adolphe now to better round out my experience of Providence? (Does this count as wading into comparative literature?)

Adolphe can be easily (and crudely) summarized thusly: For the first third of the book Adolphe seeks to win over the love of Ellénore. He spends the final two thirds trying to break up with her.

At first glance the two works have a few things in common. Both Kitty and Adolphe are seemingly ruled by reason and calculation yet both find themselves subject to swings of passion that cancel out much of their rational thinking. Kitty’s classroom explanation of Adolphe’s behavior could just as easily be applied to Kitty:

‘…it is characteristic of the Romantic to reason endlessly in unbearable situations, and yet to remain bound by such situations…For the romantic, the power of reason no longer operates. Or rather, it operates, but it cannot bring about change.’

And both Brookner and Constant use language that is rather staid compared to the turmoil it describes. Again, Kitty’s exegesis on Constant could apply as easily to Brookner:

…the potency of this particular story comes from the juxtaposition of extremely dry language and extremely heated, almost uncontrollable sentiments…[T]here is a feeling that it is almost kept under lock and key, that even if the despair is total, the control remains.

And there is more than a little connection between the two works in the fact that Kitty’s behavior towards Maurice is a more modern, less dramatic version of the theme that Kitty abhors in Adolphe. It is only for the sake of studying the juxtaposition of classicism and Romanticism that Kitty overlooks:

…its terribly enfeebling message: that a man gets tired of a woman if she sacrifices everything for him, that such a woman will eventually die of her failure, and that the man will be poisoned by remorse for the rest of his life.

Of course the modern twist means that Kitty doesn’t get to die of a broken heart, and Maurice, most certainly feels no remorse.

So what then of Providence in both Providence and Adolphe? In Brookner’s novel, the idea plays out in Maurice’s belief in Providence as well as in Kitty’s conflict between her non-belief and her flirtation with that which is outside her control. What else could explain her visits to a fortune teller and her reluctance to accept the reality of her relationship with Maurice? But I think the more interesting aspect of Providence and the one that plays out in both Providence and Adolphe, is in how the objects of female desire, Maurice and Adolphe, play the parts of Gods. Not in the sense of being the objects of worship or adoration (although there is an element of that). But rather they both usurp the role of the guiding hand in the way they actively manipulate the desire of Kitty and Ellénore, and indeed control their destinies. One could argue that it is still Providence at work but really it seems more to me like they are being toyed with by self-centered men. In the case of Adolphe his motivation seems to be purely ego and boredom. With Maurice you can add to that the fact that he wants a hot meal every now and again.

After re-reading the passages in Providence that dealt with Adolphe explicitly I couldn’t help but think that the title of Brookner’s book could have been Alienation. Through the lens of Kitty’s discussion of Adolphe’s feelings of alienation, it struck me that Kitty’s big problem was less to do with Providence and more to do with her utter sense of alienation. Alienated from her colleagues, her country, her ethnicity, her aging grandparents, her dead mother, her father who died in the war without ever knowing his daughter, and even from the fashion of the times. In the end, her academic career, perhaps the thing that most alienates her from all the rest, is the only thing she has to hold on to.

You know I love a list (the Brookner Edition)


No doubt this badge does not refer to British
fiction writers. Until now.

Anyone who knows anything about me knows that I love a list. While poking around on the Googles looking for interesting bits about Anita Brookner I came across this list from The Sunday Times published in 2008.  Naturally AB makes the cut. I have noted the ones that I have read.

The Sunday Times 50 Greatest British Writers Since 1945

1. Philip Larkin
2. George Orwell read
3. William Golding read
4. Ted Hughes
5. Doris Lessing read
6. J. R. R. Tolkien
7. V. S. Naipaul read
8. Muriel Spark read
9. Kingsley Amis almost read
10. Angela Carter
11. C. S. Lewis read
12. Iris Murdoch read
13. Salman Rushdie mean to read
14. Ian Fleming
15. Jan Morris
16. Roald Dahl
17. Anthony Burgess
18. Mervyn Peake
19. Martin Amis read
20. Anthony Powell will read
21. Alan Sillitoe
22. John Le Carré tried to read
23. Penelope Fitzgerald read
24. Philippa Pearce
25. Barbara Pym read
26. Beryl Bainbridge tried to and still mean to read
27. J. G. Ballard
28. Alan Garner
29. Alasdair Gray
30. John Fowles
31. Derek Walcott
32. Kazuo Ishiguro read
33. Anita Brookner read
34. A. S. Byatt
35. Ian McEwan read
36. Geoffrey Hill
37. Hanif Kureishi
38. Iain Banks read
39. George Mackay Brown
40. A. J. P. Taylor read
41. Isaiah Berlin read
42. J. K. Rowling read
43. Philip Pullman
44. Julian Barnes read
45. Colin Thubron
46. Bruce Chatwin read
47. Alice Oswald
48. Benjamin Zephaniah
49. Rosemary Sutcliff
50. Michael Moorcock

Of the ones I haven’t already read, which authors do I really need to read?

Photo Quiz (the Brookner Edition)

Based on these two photos, can you tell which novel I am going to review tomorrow? Since you were all so good at my last photo contest. I give no hints this time. In fact, in order to actually win, you not only have to get the book title right but you have to tell me the name of the artist who created the fresco in the second photo. The winner gets to order their paperback of choice from The Book Depository.

The big day is right around the corner and the reviews are piling up over at IABD, most recently from Luvvie’s Musings. So far we have 14 reviews available. And we can’t wait to add yours to the official IABD review archive.