Wednesday, May 27, 2020

The Anita Brookner Blog Post

It started with a work dare. Jen wrote to the Boswellians: "Is there an author that you've read practically everything by them? How many books in their collection of works have you read?" I could think of three writers where I’d read more than 20 of their books – Anne Tyler, Alice Hoffman, and Anita Brookner. Since I had already written posts about my love for Tyler and Hoffman recently, I focused on Brookner. Kira took the photo for Instagram.

Anita Brookner's final novel, Strangers, was published in 2009 and is the only novel of hers I hadn't yet read. The only Anne Tyler I haven't read is Noah's Compass, also from 2009. I wonder what was going on that year that threw off my reading? I thought that Brookner’s passing in 2016 would be the impetus for me to finish reading her ouvre, but no dice. Now she seems more timely than ever - I can’t think of an author who has written about isolation and disappointment in a more vibrant way. So Strangers I read.

My review: Paul Sturgis, in his seventies, is comfortably retired. He has a nice apartment in a prestigious London neighborhood, and enough money saved for occasional trips to France and Italy. But without siblings and never having married or had children, he is wistful for some sort of closer connection. Several times he notes how his work friends have drifted away. His only regular visits are to his cousin by marriage, and that experience is not particularly warm. Then two women enter his life – an old girlfriend Sarah, who once rejected him and now is a widow with unspecified illness, and Vicky, a younger woman who is a bit of a user. As in all of Brookner’s character-driven novels, the action is inside the brain, dissecting manner and motives, with a good amount of meditation on other subjects, notably the instability of aging and the unsatisfying nature of home. The ending, such as it is, would hardly be considered storybook, but is appropriate for Paul’s character, for whom any action is a triumph. Brookner’s novels are hardly for everybody, but for some, they are irresistible.

At the start of this challenge, I checked my library and confirmed I owned 23 of her 24 novels. There are a fair number of American hardcover editions, a couple of reading copies, one fancy, one in that traditional generic white with blue Random Houses all over it. I have several paperbacks, including three Vintage editions, and while none are in that distinct Vintage Contemporary style, a collection of “color-banded spines, dot matrix accents, often surreal artwork and equally cryptic colophon," per Talking Covers, I do have a Perennial Library reprint which attempted to ape the VC vibe with pastel covers.

I also have a Brookner paperback that was reprinted in 1985 by Dutton Obelisk, which was back when Dutton was more than just a corporate imprint. Those were the days when most publishers  bought paperback reprint rights from other publishers, even when they had their own hardcover program. And Brookner was always for sale – one got the feeling that aside from the prize-winning Hotel Du Lac, her sales were probably better in the hardcover edition.

Because most of my collection is hardcovers, I notice that one of the few things cover designers agreed on was that the most appropriate image was a portrait, especially after American rights moved from Pantheon to Random House. I bet you thought Ann Patchett invented using a painting as a jacket image, but more than half of Brookner’s output featured portraiture. The Dutch House would look right at home if someone decided to stage an exhibition of Brookner-esque cover imagery. Here's The Wall Street Journal article on The Dutch House book jacket.

Almost all the books did use a standard trim of 5.75 x 8.5 until the last few books, when Random House moved to the more standard 6.5 x 9.5. For several titles, the art director chose a color palette of black and gold, but that also fell out of favor. Coherent cover design is not that important in a bookstore or website for hardcovers, because multiple hardcovers by an author are not for sale at the same time. But when you take them home and put them in your library, that consistency can be appealing. One thing I should note here was that in the age of ebooks, it’s more common for hardcover fiction to not get a paperback reprint, but Brookner always did.

Being that I wrote up reviews for books I read from 1987 on (many mailed out to friends as the Booklist), I am able to reprint excerpts here. I often ranked the books within the month (until about 2002), but I should note that some months had themes and I kept the thematic books together. It’s not a science.

A Misalliance (1987): Excellent woman is left by her husband for a floozy. She befriends a different floozy with a child that doesn’t talk. Is this woman happy or not? Find out in the many interior monologues.

A Friend from England (1988): I left it off my reading list even though I read it. I’m glad to see absentmindedness is a long-standing trait for me. Similarly, I can’t find a review for Providence, but I have a copy of the paperback in my bookcase of already-read titles. It looks read, and I almost never borrow anything.

Latecomers (1989): Two friends, Harmann and Fibich, work together. While both are survivors of the Holocaust, Hartmann is able to block out his past and live a generally content life, while Fibich continues to obsess over it. Both marry odd women and father even odd children… As usual, Brookner’s ability to create images as richly detailed as a painting is admirable and no surprise, as she teaches art history. I enjoyed Latercomers more than her last few books.

Look at Me (1983, read in 1989): A couple of my friends are Anita Brookner fanatics, and while I read each one, I never know quite what their fascination is. Now I think I know. Look at Me concerns Frances Hinton, reference librarian. Her drab life is highlighted by visits to the bitter, retired Miss Marpeth. Then lively and spirited Alex and Nick come into her life. They invite her into a new world and even provide her with a suitable beau. Somehow, though, Frances loses favor with her newfound friends and must return to solitude. Sigh. (I think this resonated with me as I went through this several times in my 20s and 30s – the friend of the moment who was then hung up to dry.)

Lewis Percy (1990): Lonely Lewis Percy marries the equally lonely Tissy the librarian, only to find that her ties to Mum are too strong to break. One day he stays late at work and that is the beginning of the end. Before he knows it, she has moved back home… Each tiny incident is dissected to the smallest particle, which can be interesting or tedious, depending on your disposition. This is certainly no breakout book for Brookner (was there ever one?), but it’s up to standards.

Brief Lives (1991): From the memoirs of Fay Dodworth Langdon comes this tale of a woman whose early minor fame is subsumed by a disappointing marriage… Brookner’s brush is so bittersweet that even the protagonists’s great affair, the love of her life, can’t be called anything but melancholy. The scenes are vivid, the recollections fresh, and I’m ready for her next one. (Note the typeface on Brief Lives and A Closed Eye is similar, but not identical. There's just no interest in hardcover consistency.)

A Closed Eye (1992): Published simultaneously in Canada and shipped to Schwartz in error - of course I bought the Canadian edition. Harriet Lytton leads a sheltered life with her parents in a dress shop. Her only exposure to the wild world outside are evenings with her friends, particularly among them Tessa Dodd. While Harriet marries a well-off, passionless army chum of her father’s, Tessa opts for a passionate and painful marriage to a reporter. Their daughters are brought together when Harriet offers to sit for Tessa’s Lizzie, and their lives are further intertwined when Harriet develops a fixation on Tessa’s husband. (Despite a more dynamic plot than many of Brookner’s novels, I still ended my positive review with the catch phrase, “many are bored, few are chosen.”)

Fraud (1993): Anna Durant disappears, but this is hardly a mystery. Brookner teases with this genre opening and then discards it. Everyone who reads my booklists by now knows what Anita Bookner novels are like. A keenly observant but rather quiet person takes stock of her life situation due to the entry of some irritant (a suitor, a younger friend, a death), deals with it, and moves on… What I found fascinating in Fraud was the way Brookner followed several characters thoughts (instead of being limited to the protagonist.) A doctor’s appointment of luncheon would ensue, and each character would carry on an appropriate interior monologue…)

Dolly (1994): Brookner continues one recurring theme of a character reflecting on another’s life as a method for analyzing her own. Jane Manning’s quiet and serious life is prodded by the recurring appearance s of her unrefined, un-British, aunt-by-marriage Dolly… Dolly received a particularly excellent Jonathan Yardley review in The Washington Post, where he celebrated the newfound passion and potential in Brookner’s writing. (Note: this was my #1 book for the month, the first time this happened. The Eastern European (Jewish) character upsetting the English apple cart of decorum is a recurring trope in Brookner novels.)

A Private View (1995): One of the occasional Brookner novels with a male protagonist. George Bland has never married. He misses his close male work associate, who has recently died. He misses his long-term girlfriend, who eventually got fed up with Bland’s lack of interest in marriage and married another. Into his life comes a brash young American, a woman very interested in human potential, spiritual healing, and other things that an older British woman like Brookner would think sounded ridiculous. (To summarize, George muses internally but does nothing to affect the action. Many similar plotpoints to Strangers! This was also my #1 book for the month out of seven titles read. Competition included Abba Gold: The Complete Story, by John Tobler, which I believe would be quite popular with the current crop of Boswellians.)

Incidents in the Rue Laugier (1996): Brookner’s protagonists often find themselves the uncomfortable outsider in life, either as the French person in the company of English as is Maud Gonier (for Brookner, a relatively young woman during the meat of this novel), or as a Jew (though generally unspoken) in others… As Maud is readied for the marriage market by her pushy mother, she meets a suitable if roguish Englishman named David Tyler… After a rather intense affair, she is cast off to one of his friend, the mild Edward Harrison. Disappointment ensues. Surely other Brookner heroines have had happier fates, and one thinks perhaps Maud would have been happier alone.

Hotel Du Lac (1985, re-read in 1996): Well here is my #1 book of the month by a longshot. I reread it to lead our (Mequon) in-store book group and what a fascinating conversation we had. Edith Hope is a writer of romance, who is holed up in a Swiss hotel, living out the infamy of a bad decision she made in London. What is that decision? (Hope observes the other occupants of the hotel and winds up finding herself in another romantic quandary. I called this novel, her fourth, one of the most accessible Brookners.)

Altered States (1997): Alan Sherwood is seduced by a temptress, Sarah Miller, but settles into marriage with her hanger-on, Angela Milson. Anyone who has read Incidents in the Rue Laugier will recognize this plot. Brookner has reversed the genders and changed the perspective from omniscient to first-person. Brookner has also replaced the resignation of Incident to anger here… Brookner captures the intensity of doomed longing as well as anyone, despite making Sarah almost humorously monstrous.

The Debut (published in 1981 as A Start in Life, read in 1997): Despite the unusual note of hope at the end of The Debut, Brookner’s novel has a rich maturity that stands up to her later works. Of course we cannot be certain that this is Brookner’s first novel at all, only her first published one. This is the one book not published in hardcover by Pantheon or Random House, but by shuttered imprint Linden Press, Simon's boutique imprint headed by Joni Evans, which is why since 2018 it a Simon and Schuster paperback. At right is a UK edition, far more livelier than any American jacket I've come across.

Visitors (1998): After two novels that swept through the years, dealing with wrong romantic choices of one’s youth, Brookner returns to the present and an elder heroine. Dorothea May, known variously as Thea and Mrs. May, is a childless woman of 70, married late and widowed early, who is convinced to take in guests for her husband’s cousin’s wedding… Her guest, Steve Best, both annoys and intrigues her, intruding on her lonely life, disrupting routing, and unnerving her reserve. This does not cause any change in Thea’s life, but is more of a springboard for contemplation.

Falling Slowly (1999): Miriam Sharpe is a translator in London, divorced, and living with her younger sister Beatrice, an accompanist. Fringe dwellers of a sophisticated set, they have forsaken love and marriage for semi-solitude… I recently saw Brookner’s novels referred to as anti-romances, and in Falling Slowly, Brookner conforms to that genre by tying up every loose end in the saddest possible way… (this dropped back to #3)

Undue Influence (2000): Some Brookner fans seem to have taken Undue Influence as one of the best, but I begged to differ. Claire Pitt, on her own after the death of her mother, is a clerk in a second-hand bookstore run by two elderly sisters. Widower Martin Gibson becomes a semi-regular customer, and Claire an he begin an affair. Despite his seeming weaknesses, she hopes to marry him. Needless to say, happiness isn’t exactly around the corner for Brookner heroines (#5 for the month)

The Bay of Angels (2001): Is life like a fairy tale? That’s what Zoe Cunningham believes, as she and her mother live quietly in Edith Grove. Then a happy ending does come into her life Simon is older, Jewish, and owns a house in France. Eventually that’s where Zoe's mother settles, but something still seems wrong... All Brookner novels are special. However, even I can understand how readers can get the one where the woman never recovered from the bad affair and died a spinster confused with the one where she married on the rebound and died after a lifeless marriage. (Back at #1 – Ah, a theme! The aftermath of love. In this book, I note that Brookner sees an alternative besides impossible happiness and a lifetime of despair).

As an aside, here’s a note from my bookseller-turned-librarian former colleague and now friend Sharon: “I was inspired by your Instagram post of all of the Anita Brookner novels that you have read. Several years ago, (more like 5 or 6) I bought a used copy of Bay of Angels in a bookstore in Chicago. I dug it out and started reading it this weekend. I'm about halfway through and am enjoying it.”

Making Things Better (2003): Anita Brookner has never been content to let a character grow old in peace.  No, her desire is to depict the last years when every regret, misstep, and unfulfilled desire can return to haunt her characters, in this case, Julius Herz, the proprietor of a music store in London. The clever ending that could be spotted about 100 pages away helped me decide that this is one of Brookner’s lesser novels. I should note that this was one of Brookner’s more lauded novels, having been long-listed for the Booker Prize. It’s also one of two novels renamed in the American publication (UK title is The Next Big Thing), despite the original British titles being perfectly good. Within a few years, the Random House would stop bothering to de-Britishize the spellings.

The Rules of Engagement (2004): This is the story of two childhood friends separated by circumstance whose lives re-intersect when their husbands die. This seems like more plot than a typical Brookner, but don’t be fooled. There is the usual amount of internal analysis, and like her more recent books, time is the fiercest enemy of all.  I liked this more than Making things Better, but to honestly say, as the Publishers Weekly reviewer did, that readership would increase with this title’s publication, is quite the stretch. 

Leaving Home (2006): I have noticed that Ms. Brookner enjoys leaving her characters anonymous upon introduction - is this perhaps a play for universality? It is not until page 36 that her latest heroine is graced with a name, Emma. Her father has died and her stern uncle expects her to be caretaker to her weak mother, but Emma has grander plans. Well, grand if you consider graduate studies in classical garden design. Soon Emma finds herself with three possible love interests. Eventually something has to give, and it does. Will Emma live happily ever after, or come to a tragic end?  Who do you think you’re reading here?  The answer, as always in a Brookner novel, is far more subtle and elegant than that, and yet somehow just as moving.

Here's a blog post called Anita Brookner reading month, which was July 2013. There are a bunch of these! The Paris Review, after Brookner's death, had an article from Emma Garman noting that the author was no latter-day Austen. But she did write one of the greatest opening lines of all time, one that my friend John can still quote on command. 

Here's a coda. I went through my collection and realized I only owned 23 of Brookner’s 24 novels. The missing book was Family and Friends that was actually the first book I read, in March of 1986, after getting a recommendation of her work from my new friend John Eklund at the Harry W Schwartz Bookshop on Water and Wisconsin. It was before I started writing reviews. I didn’t buy it, but instead had borrowed it from the North Hills Branch of the Queens (then Queensboro) Library. In 2019, John had pared down his collection and sold us his Anita Brookner duplicates. We had sold almost all of them – the only one left was the hardcover of Family and Friends. Reader, I bought it.

No comments: