Anita Brookner At Her Best: A Review of Brief Lives
For more than a year I have been reading the works of Anita Brookner with my dear friend, Leo from A Little Book Life. It has been such a remarkable project that started with a lark. Leo had seen the first line of her debut work called A Start In Life and he posted it on Instagram. I mentioned that it looked so familiar, jumped up to look through my book piles and found a small copy that I had read years before but I couldn't remember a lot (or any) of the details. He suggested that we read it together, and I lept at the opportunity. From there we were both curious to see how her writing could evolve from such an auspicious starting point. A reading project was born and it would encompass 24 novels- one per month for 2 years.
With Brief Lives, we have arrived at her 10th novel. By this time, we have a clear set of expectations as Anita Brookner is a specific kind writer. She has a milieu- middle class British women who struggle with loneliness. But from the beginning sentences of Brief Lives we were struck by something new. This book is written in the first person. Most of her books are from an omniscient narrator point of view. The only other book that we have read with a first person narration was Look At Me, her third book. Immediately, we were both drawn in more intimately by the change in the tone this shift creates. And when you read an Anita Brookner book, it's all about the character study. Very little happens in plot terms. It's all about the thoughts and feelings of these women in relationship to their very insular communities.
This book introduces us to Fay, a middle aged woman, who looks at her life upon the death of what we would now term her "frenemy", Julia. The book starts with the sentence, "Julia is dead. I read it in The Times this morning." A few sentences later we read this startling pronouncement, "I never liked her, nor did she like me; strange, then, how we managed to keep up a sort of friendship for so long." Well, with a start like that- I was hooked.
Fay and Julia met because their husbands worked together and therefore they were often paired up for work events and the like, even a holiday together. But Julia was an outrageous, demanding, gorgeous, cold and biting woman. She was an actress who never left the stage, per se, just changed her audience from public to private, and was not pleased at her less than adoring crowd she was reduced to. She is one of those characters that one loves to read on the page but would never want to meet in real life. However, Ms. Brookner is too smart to craft a story that is a simplistic compare/contrast between these two women. A few pages into the story, she has Fay admit that "She was not a very nice woman, but then neither am I."
Despite that warning from the start of the book, I couldn't help but warm to Fay. Like Ms. Brookner's other protagonists, she is a smart woman who is exceedingly capable. And like all of her female protagonists, she does not know her worth.
Through this book it became very clear that the entire obsession with loneli-
ness in almost all of her novels is, at its core, about a lack of self-esteem. It's not clear, however, if Ms. Brookner ever realizes this herself. This topic is danced around so often that one cannot help but wonder if we are witnessing the novelistic version of talk therapy, with her trying to work out why loneliness exists and how to cure it.
She has not created protagonists who understand how to stand on their own, how to enjoy their own company, how to self-sooth even, but it's always something she creates in another character (like Julia) who often has it in excess. She is so good at nuances and subtlety in her writing that to see her unable to imagine how a female character can be independent without being difficult feels like a significant blind spot for her.
It made me think of Ms. Brookner's own life. Leo and I bemoan the fact that there isn't a biography of her life, and we eagerly wait for it. We know that she was an academic and had a lot of success as an art historian, and had written a few books on the Romantic Art period. I find it interesting that the only lead characters who care about career progression have been those in academia- Ruth from A Start in Life and Kitty from her second novel (and one of my favorites) Providence. But even in those, the focus on a woman's happiness and value is always on having a man and being made a wife.
Her leads are often tied closely to their family, struggling to become free from the parental constraints and emotional holds they have on them. Maybe these characters never were taught to be independent as a means of keeping them always close and dependent upon the family unit. Perhaps this was her personal history as well, as the child of secular Jewish immigrants from Poland, which included her grandmother and uncle all sharing the same home when she was growing up.
As a feminist, reading Ms. Brookner can make me want to rip my hair out, burn my bra and start a riot. The books feel so old fashioned, even though they were just written in the 1980s and 1990s. She didn't start writing until she was 53, and published a novel every year for the next 24 years. They tend to feel like they are written about the early 1960s, though the time periods are never set. The roles of single women, divorcées and widows are lessened when compared to married women, regardless of the level of happiness and joy of that marriage. To marry poorly was considerably more desirable than to end your life alone. (But it's ludicrous given that at that time, most women did outlive their husbands. ) And so the women she pours her focused attention on are societal losers in this game, and pay a price for not attracting and keeping a man's love.
So why do I keep coming back to her work when it triggers me so much? Firstly, it's the magnificence of her writing. She can flat out write a sentence like no other. Secondly, she is outrageously funny at times with her sharp insights, outrageous characters and scenes. Thirdly, I feel she is a bridge between the interwar women writers (Rebecca West, Dorothy Whipple, and that ilk), and contemporary women writers. She still has the touch and feel of the earlier generation of writers, but is coming to terms with the world that led us to now- a world of freedom, autonomy and self-care as declared rights for women. It's a world that she and her characters were never adequately prepared for and because of that they suffered greatly.
Because of the dynamic, tense and compelling relationship between Fay and Julia, and the coterie of women Julia keeps at her beck and call, this book enters the short list of remarkable books on difficult women that I just adore- the Ferrante quartet, The Door by Magda Szabó (translated by Len Rix), The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery (translated by Alison Anderson) and An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddine.