Anita Brookner, who is 80, came late to writing. She was 53, a teacher at the Courtauld Institute with a distinguished academic career, when she published her first book, in 1981, the aptly titled A Start in Life. Three years later she was awarded the Booker Prize for her novel Hotel du Lac. For a long time afterwards Brookner produced a novel a year with clockwork regularity – the first glimmer of summer, a new Brookner – the fruits of what she wrily calls 'displacement activity'. But in recent years her productivity has slowed. Her new novel, Strangers, is the first in four years. Friends, lunch companions, see less of her. There is the unspoken sense that she is withdrawing. Brookner, who once described her ambition as 'to be unnoticed', rarely gives interviews – has not given one, as far as I can tell, for some 12 years.
Everything I had heard about her made her sound formidable. An old acquaintance talked about her intense privacy, and her 'fierce intelligence'. Her habit of abbreviating social engagements is legendary. Appearances at parties were always described as 'fleeting'. Someone who lunched with her from time to time reported that no matter how early they arrived Brookner would be waiting. Lunch would be short.
Brookner lives in a mansion block in Kensington; a milieu that is familiar from many of her novels. I was told to present myself at 2.30 'promptly', and after circling the block twice, rang the doorbell at 2.25. There was no answer, nor from her telephone. I waited, unsure what to do. At length, the door cracked open, and Brookner appeared, small, fragile and watchful. How long, I asked, as we ascended in the lift to the first floor, have you lived here?
She sighed. 'Too long.'
Brookner lives alone. She has never married, and the preponderance of disappointed spinsters in her books has inevitably tended to give rise to the assumption that she is that person. 'I feel I could get into The Guinness Book of Records as the world's loneliest, most miserable woman,' she remarked in the year she won the Booker. It is only when you meet her that you can hear the dry, amused, worldly tone that must have informed that sentence as she said it.
Her rooms have an elegant, almost austere simplicity. A sofa, an armchair, a coffee table. Along one wall stands a row of bookshelves, lined with well-thumbed volumes of Sartre, de Beauvoir, Proust, a biography of Henry James. Eighteenth-century prints hang on the pale walls. There is an antique television set on spindly legs that looks as if it might pre-date the introduction of colour, never mind digital. There is no sign of any personal imprimatur – photographs, nostalgic bric-a-brac. The abiding impression is of stillness, silence and serious-mindedness. You sense the absence of visitors.
She offers coffee from a cafetiere, and seats herself on the sofa: immaculately dressed; perfectly contained in her movements, a woman of impeccable manners and propriety.
'You will find yourself babbling,' Julian Barnes, an old friend of Brookner's, cautioned me before I met her. 'One of the most remarkable things about her is that her conversation has perfect punctuation, so that you hear every colon and semi-colon; and this makes you aware that your own grammar in spoken English is very sloppy. It's not a deliberate trick to make you feel uneasy; it's simply how she is.'
And Barnes is right. Brookner answers questions with the utmost precision and, often, the utmost brevity, with nothing more than a word or sentence or two. In her bearing, her manner and her conversation there is nothing about her that is superfluous.
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