Anita Brookner has never shied from terrible truths
The Booker prize longlist is soon to be revealed. Doubtless it will be attended by the usual controversies, and these will probably be magnified when the winner is eventually announced. Controversy is the breath of life to literary prizes. Thirty years ago, for instance, a minor ruckus occurred when Anita Brookner’s novel Hotel du Lac stole the crown from J G Ballard’s Empire of the Sun.
Ballard’s book is certainly magnificent. Hotel du Lac is far more limited in obvious scope, being the concisely told tale of a lonely woman’s brief sojourn in a Swiss hotel. It can easily be damned with faint praise, described as clear-eyed, intelligent, exquisitely wrought: all the slightly dull literary virtues. Nevertheless, I would contend that it is one of the few Booker winners that will endure.
Indeed, Anita Brookner, who turns 86 next week, is to my mind the last great novelist of the 20th century (and, technically, the first of this century; her 25th novel, At the Hairdresser’s, was published in 2011). She belongs to a near-vanished novelistic tradition, in which the authorial voice is not – as so often nowadays – a dominating and insistent presence, but is subservient to the cause of examining the human condition. She has a style, of course, rigorous and droll and almost repressively civilised. Yet the point is not the style itself, rather what she is using it to say: the terrible truths that she is telling about love, loss, ageing, life itself. Depressing, say her critics. But then truth, as opposed to openness, is also somewhat out of fashion.
I first read Brookner about 20 years ago, and despite being too young to know just how terribly truthful she was, I fell instantly in love. I dismissed accusations that her novels repeatedly revisited the same territory, that of disappointed lives led in dim-lit mansion flats by sad spinsters in cardigans. Actually, Brookner herself has admitted that “one keeps on writing the same book over and over again”. But this is simply a product of her integrity. Like Jane Austen, she has her two inches of ivory, and she recognised that her artistic destiny was to polish it to the highest possible finish. Anyway, criticism, as she once said, is “mostly ill-founded, with a sneer behind it. Take it or leave it.”
She is an essentially autobiographical writer. Her protagonists are usually female, they are disconcertingly clever, and their controlled behaviour masks powerful romantic yearnings. They are intrigued and repelled by the kind of women who achieve conventional fulfilment, who “raise altars to themselves”, who are tricky and ruthless in the pursuit of what they want. Brookner, incidentally, is more honest about her own sex than any other novelist. She would probably be torn to shreds by the new feminists, were it not for the fact that her calm style helps to conceal her transgressions against orthodoxy.
Her first novel, A Start in Life, published in 1981 when she was 53, is the story of a young academic, Ruth Weiss, whose “life had been ruined by literature”. Ruth’s subject, Balzac, is her support but also an uncertain guide to reality. Nevertheless, she finds a measure of female contentment in Paris, before being dragged back to London by the demands of her parents, who regard her quiet choices as subsidiary to their own. Thereafter, all that is left to her are the spaces of her restless, learned mind.
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