Latecomers by Anita Brookner

Anita Brookner pic
British novelist, Anita Brookner (1928 – 2016) won the Booker Prize in 1984 for Hotel du Lac.

When Brookner’s editor Liz Calder rang her up to report the news of her Booker Prize nomination Anita replied, “I think I shall go out and get a pair of shoes resoled. That will help me keep my feet on the ground.”

Everyone thought J. G. Ballard would win for Empire of the Sun – the odds were 6 to 1 that he would. He didn’t. She did.

Before becoming a novelist – she was always a writer –  she was a celebrated art historian and the first female Slade Professor of Fine Art at the University of Cambridge. She wrote 24 novels, almost one a year, from 1981, she was 53,  to 2011. She was an only child of “unhappy” parents who lived with her grandmother. “They were transplanted and fragile people, an unhappy brood, and I felt that I had to protect them. Indeed that is what they expected. As a result I became an adult too soon and paradoxically never grew up.” She never married or had children.

Fellow British writer and friend, Julias Barnes remembers, “She was witty, glitteringly intelligent, reserved, and unknowable beyond the point she herself had already decided upon. I can’t think of a novelist less likely to write an autobiography. She was fiercely moral without being moralistic, and fiercely truthful.”

With the opening to Latecomers you know you are in the safe hands of an authoritative wordsmith:

Hartmann, a voluptuary, lowered a spoonful of brown sugar crystals into his coffee cup, then placed a square of bitter chocolate on his tongue, and, while it was dissolving, lit his first cigarette. The ensuing mélange of tastes and aromas pleased him profoundly, as did the blue tracery of smoke above the white linen tablecloth, the spray of yellow carnations in the silver vase, and his manicured hand on which the wedding ring fitted loosely, without those deep indentations that afflict the man who has gained weight or age, a man to whom in any case his wedding might be presumed to be an affair of the irrelevant past. 

She then describes Hartmann’s gaze falling on a group of middle-management men and Brookner drops into the second person as Hartmann chastises them for gorging themselves on lobster cocktail and steak and kidney pie:

My dears, you do not look well … your complexions are not clear, your haircuts unbecoming.

It’s the story of two German Jewish immigrants, Hartmann the voluptuary, Fibich the worrier, who, although from the same background and bind their lives together in the same work, are two very different men, marry two very different women, and have, one each, two very different children. The narrator tells us about them. There is very little dialogue, hardly any; only carefully considered sentences almost bursting with detailed information. As you can see from the quote above hardly a noun is allowed to exist without at least one apt adjective. Brookner places a lot of trust and love into her adjectives and adverbs. When my book-fairy brought me this one from Europe late last year I looked at it and said, “Oh, I didn’t know about this one.” He said, “What? Oh, I don’t recall their titles, I just read her, over and over,” and he made a face as if to say, “Well, why wouldn’t you? They’re delicious.” Another apt adjective. Hers is the type of writing that brings you pleasure no matter what the writing is about. Of course, she honed her writing skills as an art historian writing about art, until hers became an art in itself.

Her style won’t please everybody; her focus is on what these people are like, not what they do but on the way you find out what they did, and how they did it, why, and what they felt about it. I often write about the image of a novel’s narrator as an imp sitting on the shoulders of the protagonists having access to what the protagonist not only sees and hears but also what they think; but in Brookner the imp is sitting just behind their eyes surrounded by the cluttered furniture of their hopes and fantasies, feelings and thoughts, and so by telling us all this the characters emerge and she shows us what being human is like.

Although the action is minimal, time passes – actually over 50 years pass, from when the boys first meet at boarding school to their latter years when grandchildren are on the way, mixed with the feelings of love, pride, and even disappointment in what their children have, or have not, achieved. Many critics of Brookner chastise her for her moody, timid, and undemanding characters due, they say, to her never marrying and not having children. However, for a husbandless and childless woman she deftly handles the changing feelings, the stings and shadows, joys and love-bursts of two very different couples for their offspring: one becomes a self-centred and ebullient actor, one a passive and disappointed housewife.

Fibich, the desperately thin and always fearful one, takes a courageous journey back to Berlin in an effort to try to recapture something of himself as a child; some inkling of what home might feel like. His journey is revelatory because of a chance scene he witnesses; something that has nothing to do with Germany, but all to do with memory. It’s Brookner at her best.

It’s a handsome volume and part of the Vintage Contemporaries Series, but don’t take much notice of the blurb on the back: it makes it sound something it isn’t, but then if you take the ebook, which you can find here – and where you can read the first few pages for free – you won’t be tempted.

Anita Brookner died on March 10th, 2016 and an obituary appeared in the Guardian, on Tuesday, March 15 You can read it here.

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