IABD: Bits and Bobs (the Brookner Edition)

There is a 1987 Paris Review interview with Anita Brookner that is a fascinating look into Brookner’s life and work.

My favorite line, however, is from the introduction.

When asked how it felt to work in the male-dominated atmosphere of Cambridge University in the sixties, she answered, “Nobody looked all that male and I didn’t look all that female.”

What a hoot. If you want to read the interview follow this link.

And for a review of another sort, there is a fabulous review by Bibliolathas of Brookner’s Lewis Percy over at IABD.

And for another take on Paris, it occurred to me that many of Brookner’s novels could count toward the Paris in July Challenge since so many of her characters spend time there. Paris in July is being hosted by BookBath and Thyme for Tea.

As Simon says, there may only be 5 days until International Anita Brookner Day, but that is plenty of time to read one of her novels. (Check out Simon’s blog to see his great new masthead.)

RIP Anna Massey


I just bumped into the fact that Anna Massey died on July 3rd at the age of 73.

How sad. I remember her most from The Importance of Being Earnest and of course the film adaptation of Hotel du Lac.  And do you remember she played Rupert Everett’s mother in Another Country?

Just this past weekend I was contemplating getting an Anita Brookner audiobook and out of the seven or so that I previewed, I liked the ones read by her best. I was on the fence about getting the audiobook. I don’t really get much out of listening to books, and I am not really the type to sit around and listen to anything for eight hours. But now maybe I will reconsider.

I’ve been trying to get ahold of the film of Hotel du Lac, but it doesn’t seem to be available in the US anymore. I know I rented it years ago. Maybe that was on VHS and they never released the DVD here in the US.

Book Review: The Debut by Anita Brookner


By this time I am sure that you all know that International Anita Brookner Day is right around the corner on July 16th. You probably also know that I have already read all of Brookner’s 24 novels, having finished up the last two last year. So now I get to go back and read them all again, except this time I am going to read them in chronological order. I was tempted for a bit to read a few for IABD that others haven’t reviewed so I could help fill in some of the gaps in the reviews. But my OCD kicked in and insisted I follow chron order.

I don’t do much re-reading so it is a bit of a novel (ha) experience for me to go back and start from the beginning. If there is any author whose work fares well, perhaps even better, on a second read, I am finding that Anita Brookner is that author. Perhaps the most difficult part of reviewing a re-read is that it kind of requires me to dig a little deeper than I normally do in my reviews. But that could turn out to be a hot mess. Here it goes.

By now it is almost cliche in a review of The Debut (A Start in Life outside the U.S.) to quote the opening sentence:

Dr. Weiss, at forty, knew that her life had been ruined by literature.

In my humble opinion, one of the great opening lines of the 20th century. (Yet in a way, it isn’t very 20th century in sentiment, is it?) Slightly less often, reviews of The Debut go on to quote what comes after the opening line:

In her toughtful and academic way, she put it down to her faulty moral education, which dictated, through the conflicting, but in this one instance, united agencies of her mother and father, that she ponder the careers of Anna Karenina and Emma Bovary, but that she emulate those of David Copperfield and Little Dorritt.

But then where do I go from there? Perhaps say something trite about the fact that Brookner’s work is highly literate and that she is nothing if not a booklovers novelist. Done and done.

Actress mother, bookseller father far too into their own lives to bother much with their only child. Old world grandmother does her best to make a pleasant home life for Ruth, but really what kind of life is it for a child? Immature, self-involved, vain parents and an aging grandmother. No wonder Ruth turns to books for sustenance and life lessons. She says of her first encounters with Dickens that “The moral universe was unveiled.” With books standing in loco parentis it is no wonder that Ruth looks to books for comfort when her grandmother passes away…literally:

She took her grandmother’s hand and kissed it, then raised the book to her cheek and held it there for a little while…

With little more than books to show her the way it is no surprise that Ruth takes on the role of parenting her parents fairly early in life. When her teacher at school wants to see her parents her mother is less than accomodating. But by this time Ruth knows what it will take to motivate her mother.

For once she learned cunning. “They all talk about you at school,” she said carefully. “they ask me lots of questions. They still talk about you in Lady Windermere’s Fan. And you’ve never been there. You or Daddy. I think you should come once. These things make a difference.

And then reverting back to girlhood:

Cunning deserted her. “And it is my future we’re talking about.”

And so they go to school and so then does Ruth go to university. But even in that her mother’s selfishness wins out. Although she shows little interest in Ruth’s life, her mother insists that she not even try for Oxford or Cambridge because she wants her close at hand.

Like so many socially awkward people, Ruth’s world and personality open up at university. She still lives a life of books–more so than ever–but makes friends, moves to Paris to study, has romantic assignations, and seems to be looking forward to life in Paris. But it isn’t long before her parent’s to wield their selfish heads to recall her to London to keep an eye on ailing mother so that philandering father can continue his affair untroubled by who is taking care of his wife. Even her marriage that ultimately results out of her return home doesn’t quite put her on a trajectory as fulfilling as the…

God, I am beginning to bore myself. That doesn’t bode well for you dear reader. This review sounds half-baked. I am not sure what I am getting at. Part of the problem for an amateur like myself is that I want to say something as clever as Anita Brookner’s prose. Before I started re-reading her novels–although I loved them–I felt the need to qualify my love. I would warn people that not much happens. That they are depressing. That they all kind of blend together. But you know what? My re-reading experience thus far (I have also re-read her second novel Providence), has really proven to me that my enthusiasm for Brookner doesn’t require qualifiers. Sure, they won’t be for everyone, but her books are far too good and her writing far too deep and illuminating for me to be apologizing for her work. They really are brilliant. And this my friends is why I suck at reviewing them properly. How can anyone try and describe what Brookner has distilled into 192 crystalline, almost poetic, pages of human emotion?  I certainly can’t.

P.S. I think the original title A Start in Life is far better than the U.S. title. A debut suggests a well prepared for entrance into the world. Whereas Ruth just seems to slide into things with little help from anyone and with no fanfare. Plus a start in life can refer to many stages in her life: her formative years whe she got her actual start in life; her university life in which she manages to get a start in her professional life; getting started in what the reader hopes will be her life in Paris; and finally as she gets started in the non-Paris life that will no doubt see her through to the end.

IABD: Faulty Memory

Florence taken by jgcastro on Flickr
He has lots of other great shots of Italy

There appears to be a gap between the way I remember first encountering Anita Brookner and the way it actually happened. The mythology that I have built up around my first meeting with the work of Ms Brookner is that I came across her novel Altered States on a bookshelf in my bedroom in a cheap but charming pensione near the Palazzo Pitti in Florence in October 1998. I remember it clearly because my friend Kevin who had never been to Europe before thought I was stealing the book, whereas I was operating on the international traveller’s principal of take one leave one. (Although, in retrospect perhaps I did steal it. I just consulted my Books Read list for that time period and there is no way I had any of those books with me, let along left any of them behind. Unless maybe I left a book that I didn’t finish reading, but that doesn’t seem likely either. I guess I need to find that pensione again and replace the paperback I stole 13 years ago.

Lest you think I am a liar as well as a book stealer, I should note that the above did indeed happen. What is incorrect about this supposedly clear memory of my first Brookner, is that this stolen novel wasn’t actually my first Brookner. I had actually read her novel A Friend From England in May of that year.

So why the faulty memory? Who knows. As I sat and puzzled it out tonight it occurred to me that rather than stumble across my first Brookner in Florence, I no doubt picked up my first Brookner A Friend from England at a used book store in Minneapolis because it had the word “England” in the title. My reading choices were pretty haphazard back in those days and I certainly didn’t have a good handle on how to effectively slake my thirst for all things English so I needed such obvious cues to help me along. And I suppose that I had visions of what a book with the word England in the title should be like, and while Anita Brookner may be very English, it wasn’t quite what I was expecting.

Part of the memory of my first Brookner novel was that I had a love/hate relationship with it. I remember thinking it so depressing and dreadful but also somehow compelling and enjoyable. But my overall impression was “no thank you, I don’t need to read her again.” But then of course something did indeed make me read her again. And once you get Anita Brookner, you get Anita Brookner. And that book from the pensione in Florence, although my second not my first Brookner, was the one that convinced me that I got Anita Brookner. And within a year of that second Brookner I read four more of her novels and continued on into the new century reading her back list with some speed.

So Florence may not be the city where I first met Anita Brookner, but it is certainly where I first began to appreciate her. Do you have any memories that you have a hunch may not be accurate?

IABD: Winners get to choose their prize!


We are just slightly over a month away from International Anita Brookner Day on July 16th. For those of you who have yet to begin the very, very easy challenge of participating in IABD, this is meant to be a kick in the pants. Remember all you have to do is read one novel by Anita Brookner by July 16th and then post about it on your blog or send me your thoughts/reviews and I will post them on the official IABD website.

All winners will get the paperback of their choice from the huge selection at The Book Depository.

Remember, you don’t have to have a blog to participate and win.

One prize will be given for each category:

Best Review

Best Brookner Related Musing (non-review)

Best Picture of your pet reading Anita Brookner (this can be interpreted loosely)

Participation Prize (random draw from those who didn’t win any of the other awards)

The fine print:

  • Prizes will only be considered for those who submit their writing/picture or link to their blog post to my email address: onmyporch [at] hotmail [dot] com. This is the only way I can ensure that everyone who wants to be included is.
  • You must notify me no later than 11:00 PM U.S. Eastern Daylight Savings Time in order to be eligible.
  • All entries will be posted on the official IABD website.
  • Co-host Simon of Savidge Reads and I will be the judges.

***SPECIAL REQUEST: If you are a blogger submitting, please when you submit the link to your review/music post via email, can you also copy and paste the HTML draft of your review/musing in its entirety in the body of your email. I know in Blogger when you are editing a post you can click on the “Edit HTML” tab and then copy every single bit of info there and past it into the body of your email. Hopefully other blog platforms allow you to do likewise. This will greatly help streamline getting your post up on the IABD website.***

What are you waiting for?  Get reading.

IABD: A website for all of your thoughts and reviews


I thought it would be great to have a central repository for all of the posts that you all are going to create in honor of International Anita Brookner Day on July 16, 2011.
I know that some of you have already posted some things that would be great additions to the IABD website. I would love to cross-post your entries, please let me know that you are interested. You can email me at onmyporch [at] hotmail [com]
And I know that some of you don’t have blogs and would like to participate. You can email me at onmyporch [at] hotmail [com]
For all of you who are going to wait until July 16th to post your IABD thoughts and reviews, I would also like to cross post all of those on the dedicated website as well.
Next week I will announce
the prizes and prize categories.

IABD: Guest Review of The Bay of Angels


72 days and counting…

…for those of you planning on reading an Anita Brookner novel before International Anita Brookner Day on July 16th.

A few weeks ago I published a review of Anita Brookner’s Incidents in the Rue Laugier by Erich Mayer, father of Brookner scholar Peta Mayer. Now I have the pleasure of posting a review of Brookner’s The Bay of Angels by Peta’s mother Wendy Mayer. As with her husband’s contribution, Wendy’s review puts my own pedestrian reviews to shame.

The Bay of Angels is Anita Brookners’s twentieth novel; it was published in 2001, twenty years after her first novel. If it had not been written by Brookner, it would have likely been simply identified as a ‘coming of age’ novel, or an exploration of the ‘generation gap’ rather than the tender, thoughtful evocation of a warm and close relationship between a mother and daughter. As the narrator, it is the daughter’s voice that charts the experience of growth and change in their lives.
In The Choice of Hercules, British philosopher A. C. Grayling discusses the notion of friendship between a parent and child:
Friendship is the ultimate aim of parenting too, for the mark of success here must ultimately be to produce independent adults capable of managing themselves in life.  A mark of success in this would be the development of genuine friendship between parent and grown-up offspring.
Brookner’s novel covers this terrain, contrasting the varied approaches to life of the different generations, but as the responsibility for family decisions inevitably shift from the mother, Anne, to the daughter, Zoe, the need to express these differences becomes apparent. The opening pages review the calm pleasure of their early lives together after the mother’s premature widowhood. Zoe enjoys school, her friends and the atmosphere of calm in the flat they live in when she returns home. She is aware that her mother may be lonely, but they both share the pleasure of reading. The tranquility of the flat is occasionally disturbed by visits from ‘the girls’, women married to distant cousins of Zoe’s father. Zoe does not refer to Anne as anything other than ‘my mother’ until page twenty, reflecting how Zoe views Anne – her identity is delineated by her role as a mother.
The Bay of Angels explores the developments in the relationship between the women as they grow up and age. In doing so, Brookner draws out the different approaches to responsibility taken by individuals operating in diverse social environments. As an adult, Zoe’s horizons widen and change, but even while experiencing these differences, the bond between mother and daughter survives and remains strong.
Characteristically, Brookner also skilfully explores the impact of ostensible minutiae on people’s lives in The Bay of Angels. Nobody but Brookner could so effectively utilise an obsession with plastic shopping bags to communicate a sense of these women’s identities, of rushed dishevelment and disempowerment. She builds very real characters as she establishes the inner differences between people, their insecurities and embarrassments that form a part of everyone’s lives.
In The Bay of Angels, Brookner beautifully creates and explores the development of a genuine friendship between a parent and her adult offspring. Such a background provides Zoe with the tools to manage her own life satisfactorily. It is not a book about a prototypical ‘hocky mom’ and her progeny, but rather a description of the different pains and pleasures suffered and enjoyed during the lives both of her protagonists and her readers, and it thus brings to life Grayling’s ‘mark of success’ in parenting.

IABD: Now with 6 winners instead of 4!


When I first announced my Anita Brookner giveaway I only had 4 books to give away. (Did I create a new compound word “giveaway” or does it exist?) But then I found another cheap copy of The Rules of Engagement and rather surprisingly found another Brookner title in my own library. So a copy of Providence was added to the list as well.
So 6 out of the 17 people that put their name in the hat won something.  To all the winners, please email your mailing address and remember to read your book by July 16, 2011.

Winners of The Rules of Engagement

Emily Barton at Telecommuter Talk

Winner of A Closed Eye

Winner of the Booker Prize winning Hotel du Lac
Mel U at The Reading Life

And winner of the surprise last minute prize Providence
Diane at Bibliophile by the Sea

Do you have your Brookner for IABD?

IABD: Guest Book Review of Incidents in the Rue Laugier

In preparation for International Anita Brookner Day on July 16th I am posting the following book review by Erich Mayer of Brookner’s 15th novesl (1995)  Incidents in the Rue Laugier. At 81, Erich is two years younger than Brookner and is an organic walnut farmer in Wallace, Australia, about 90 km out of Melbourne. He is also the father of Brookner scholar Peta Mayer. Based on the quality of this review, it is clear that the walnut doesn’t fall far from the tree.

This is the kind of review I wish I had the talent to write. For those who aren’t sure which Brookner to read for IABD, perhaps this review will lead you to choose Incidents in the Rue Laugier.

The writing is most compelling and insightful and the characters so real, that we squirm at their discomfiture and glory in their occasional bouts of near happiness. It is a sad book in which the main protagonists, like the blind man’s dog, are aching to fulfill their destinies, while building almost impregnable cages around themselves and thus severely restricting their future choices. Largely self-imposed cages of constriction from which there is, for them, no escape. Yet at least one of the main characters builds a cage which becomes more comfortable and spacious with time while another character builds a cage which increasingly constricts and stifles.

Why people should voluntarily limit themselves in the way Brookner describes so vividly is not explained, perhaps because there is no need for explanation as all of us are constrained by circumstance, by our environment, our inheritance and our abilities as are Brookner’s ever-so-real people.

Also brilliantly displayed is the undertone of cultural difference and underlying similarity between provincial French life and a pseudo-suburban English way of living. Yet the miserable imperative of a suitable marriage as the ultimate, the supreme, the unquestioned goal both for young women and young men in both cultures is starkly evident and brilliantly described.

Many, many things make Brookner such a great novelist, not least the seemingly unforced beauty of her language and the subtlety with which she is able to convey mood. We understand the love and hate relationship of the two sisters and their temporary and later final reconciliation.

We are captivated by the irresponsible charming rake while simultaneously sharing our dislike of him. We find it hard to put the book down as we become deeply and personally involved with many of the people whose ordinary lives somehow become utterly fascinating.

Perhaps it is unfair, maybe even stupid, to call this a sad book. So many people in the book are less than happy most of their lives. And yet we see at the end, so briefly and amusingly sketched, the hope that for a later generation the cage may be so big as to be almost unnoticeable, and that for some in old age may be found a tranquility and enjoyment despite life’s disappointments.

Many thanks to Erich Mayer for this review.

For those of you in the market for organic walnut products, make sure you check out the website for Wellwood Wallace

IABD: A brain malfunction and FOUR books to give away


Recently when blogging about International Anita Brookner Day, I mentioned that I was going to be reading A Closed Eye, the last of AB’s 24 novels left for me to read. Much to my chagrin, I just realized that I forgot about the fact that I just read it in November. Not only is this troubling because it makes me feel a little senile, but it also means that I have no AB novels left to read. On the other hand I have 24 to begin re-reading. And I plan do so chronologically.

In other news I am giving away not one, but four AB books in preparation for IABD.  All you have to do is cut the following and paste it in a comment with your order of preference.

Thomas, I don’t have an AB novel to read for IABD and would love to get one so I can read it by July 16, 2011. My prize preference in order is…1…2…3

Please specify your order of preference or whether or not you have no preference. I will ship anywhere in the world. Entries must be posted to my comments no later than midnight Eastern Daylight Time April 15, 2011.
And remember, all you have to do for IABD is read one AB novel between now and July 16, 2011 and then tell us about it either on your blog or in the comments on my blog or Simon’s blog.