Anita Brookner, the great English novelist and art historian, died last week at the age of 87. She was, in my opinion, one of the ten best novelists of the latter part of the twentieth century, a writer of acute psychological insights, who wrote perfect, flawless prose over and over in her approximately 24 novels, all of which I read. Rarely long, but always brilliant, her loss represents to me the probable end of a kind of writing that began with Jane Austen and may have ended with Brookner (although both Tessa Hadley and Jo Baker, Englishwomen also , have great potential in this kind of writing).
Brookner’s novels are about manners, but never comedies. She set her tone and themes early , in her very first novel, then titled Look At Me!, and later retitled The Debut (I preferred the earlier and more direct title). A prototypical Brookner protagonist was a single, unmarried/unpartnered woman of a certain age, neither young nor old, who worked in , say, a museum, or a university, an academic press–usually small offices where the work was intellectual and not greatly paid. These women live alone, in small but well ordered apartments, reflecting their well ordered worlds, lives, and minds. They are singularly astute psychologically, very aware of the vicissitudes of human behavior, understanding and tolerant, observant of human foibles and weaknesses. Their daily lives are predictable, but always dignified. They are friendly and always slightly detached.
Each one of them, in each novel (a few novels present male protagonists, although with the exception of the excellent novel Lewis Percy, Brookner’s sense of the male is not as strong as her understanding of women). Each of Brookner’s women will step out of character (for once in their ordered lives), usually fall in love with , to use my favorite Brookner word, an “unsuitable” man–they know that these men are unsuitable–and some kind of affair either de coeur or sexually will inevitably occur, and these affairs never work, though they are usually transformative for these women. They want one moment , a period of time, in their well ordered lives when they knowingly step out of character–and ultimately will step back in. Each of them is asking , demanding: “Look At Me!”, at least once (thus the greatness and preference for the original title of Brookner’s very first novel). And virtually every one of these women, when the relationship ends, will suffer both disappointment and loss, Brookner’s two main and greatest themes, as they go back to their ordinary lives, not necessarily sadder but always wiser. Brookner sees disappointment and loss as the two great psychological problems in relationships (which can also include friends and family, the title itself of a great Brookner novel) of the latter part of the 20th century. Because Brookner’s writing is so understated, nearly minimalist, the power of the narratives is that much greater, and we the readers are proud of these women for taking these chances, knowing, after you’ve read some of her books, that the women have the sanity and self-respect never to fall apart, and never publicly at that.
The characters’ dignity is one of their greatest strengths.
As a stylist, I believe that Anita Brookner wrote as well as anyone in the history of Western literature, and that’s a big claim. She worked for years as The Slade Professor of Art History at Cambridge, in England, and was considered the world’s leading authority on French l9th century Romantic painting (just as Iris Murdoch was Professor of Philosophy at Christ Church at Oxford). One of my personal greatest of joys was reading the novels of these two commandingly brilliant women, who took their academic strengths, backgrounds, and knowledge and put those into their novels. Brookner wrote perfect prose: there’s never a semi-colon out of order, a word not perfectly chosen, a description not finely wrought. Words became images in prose of such accurate and acute brevity that I read her as much for style as for plot/narrative/character. Brookner also generally preferred to summarize what people were saying, eschewing direct dialogue regularly, a style I find very effective.
I first learned of Brookner in the early 1980s in The New York Times Book Review; on the left hand page was a review of novels by (the very great) Barbara Pym, whose novels had just been republished, and the London Times referred to her as “the most underrrated novelist of the twentieth century”. On the right side of the same page was the first review of “Look at Me”: what a happy occurrence for me, amongst others, no doubt, as I went on to read all of Barbara Pym and all of Anita Brookner. Brookner’s novels seem to appear about every thirteen months or so. If you’re a reader who loves books , as I do, a new novel by your favorite writers is really an event: I have other friends who have been as fanatical about Brookner as I am, and comparing notes on her books was always a truly great pleasure for and amongst us.
I have increasingly found The New York Times Book Review to be hawking ideology rather than literature in their reviews. Generally, The Times has women review Brookner’s novels, and the vitriol with which they approached her novels was astounding: they attacked her for not being a feminist, for writing about women who, for example, bought good clothes , got their hair done, entertained with good tables, and the like, as if there were no such women, and as if Brookner were atavisitc, not advancing their cause, forgetting entirely that she was advancing great literature and was possibly the finest stylist of her generation in the world. They complained, no bitched, that her novels were all the same (not remotely accurate). I often got the sense that they didn’t read her books, or read them through the lens of feminist ideology: similar critics attacked Philip Roth because they didn’t like the ways in which he portrayed sex (as if these reviewers had a lock on how such scenes should be portrayed). I would say that Brookner’s career as a novelist paralleled the decline of The Times’ Book Review completely. I still use The Review as a source for books to read, but am indifferent about what the reviewers write or conclude. The Times misrepresented Brookner throughout her writing career, attacked her for not writing about what they wanted her to write about, misjudged her intentions, rejected freedom of choice in writing: reading The Times’ reviews of Brookner’s novels was a mirror into the ideologization of literature and the arts, as The Times devolved into promoting ideology rather than literature. It’s a sad state of affairs, to be sure. We’ll never know if Brookner’s decision to quit writing novels at least a decade ago had anything to do with these spurious and pointless attacks, or whether she’s said all she wanted to say.
Her fiction represents an ongoing rejection of contemporary Western life and culture. Her women increasingly withdraw from a world of manipulative people, of people with motives (now known as networkers), of insincerity and greed : the decline of civilized living, to be sure. Brookner’s novels reflect a different time, certainly her choice to write about, but a time of more civility, of a world where manners matter, where expectations of friendship and behavior in the workplace mattered. It’s never been up to feminists to dictate that Brookner’s world was “wrong”, as they so often did. The Times’ editors of The Book Review are entirely to blame by consistently choosing the wrong reviewers to review both Brookner’s novels as well as Roth’s, reviewers who rarely even understood either writers’ intentions.
That having (finally) been said, I pay tribute here to Anita Brookner, from whom I have learned enormous amounts about character and about prose style, whose fictionalized worlds have provided both astute social commentary and examples of perfect writing: Brookner, to come back to an earlier topic, picks up from Barbara Pym as being, probably, the most underrated writer of the second half of the twentieth century/first half of the twenty-first. If you’ve not read her, you’re in for the greatest of treats, as you encounter the talent of a woman of soaring achievement and creative genius.