Anita Brookner, who has died aged 87, observed of Emile Zola, “One marvels at his ability to start another book almost as soon as one was finished.” Much the same could be said of Brookner herself, since from 1981, when she turned to fiction with A Start in Life, she published at the rate of a novel a year, easing up only at the end of the century.
Her feelings about being so prolific were mixed: “I don’t like writing fiction much; it’s like being on the end of a bad telephone line – but it’s addictive.” All the same, and although she wrote much else, it was for her fiction that Brookner was best known.
One of her earliest novels, and still the bestselling one, is Hotel du Lac (1984), which won the Booker prize from under the nose of JG Ballard, whose Empire of the Sun had been tipped as the winner. A television version came in 1986.
Its central character is an author of romantic women’s fiction, Edith Hope, who turns down an offer of marriage in the Swiss hotel to which she has escaped from a disastrous affair. Brookner’s narrative device of events punctuated by letters home from Edith is not new; indeed, it is as old as the Greek chorus, but Brookner deploys it with pointed originality. Like the Greek chorus it comments on the action; like an on-stage telephone conversation in a Noël Coward comedy it pushes the action unpredictably forward. However, the outcome is neither tragedy nor romantic resolution, but quiet resignation.
Until the novels started, Brookner had practised purely as an art historian. She was the first woman to hold the Slade chair of fine art at Cambridge University (1967-68), and was based principally at the Courtauld Institute of Art in London.
Like Kitty Maule, the central character of her second novel, Providence (1982), who sets off for adventures in France, she pitched her tent among the romantics, in her own case moving effortlessly between the writers Stendhal, Baudelaire and the Goncourt brothers, and the painters Delacroix, Ingres and Antoine-Jean Gros. She had started her career as an expert on French 18th-century art, but having heard Isaiah Berlin say that romanticism was at the root of all our problems, she decided to broaden her expertise.
She thought of her talent as a novelist as middle-class and middlebrow. Middlebrow is a harsh judgment: her stories of disillusion, personal betrayal, minor failure, and loneliness declining into death are too uncomfortable to have had a wide readership, but though their scope is narrow, beneath an immaculate mirror surface there are great depths.
Middle-class she certainly was. She did not at first appear to be cut out either for an academic career or to be a novelist. Anita was born in London, the only child of an unhappy Polish couple who had arrived with the name of Bruckner, tweaked into Englishness to escape the ignominy of bearing a Germanic name during the first world war. Her mother, Maude (nee Schiska), had been a professional singer; her father, Newson Brookner, was a gently failing businessman who at one point owned a lending library. They lived with her grandmother, and were surrrounded by uncles, aunts and cousins.
As Brookner said in an interview with the Paris Review, “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.” Still, Newson provided her with a diet of Dickens and HG Wells.
She was educated at James Allen’s girls’ school in Dulwich, south-east London, before going on to King’s College London, which she disliked as much as she disliked her general degree course in French, history, and a third subject which she was so unenthusiastic about that she later professed to have forgotten what it was. Whatever it was, she would always neglect it in favour of a stroll down the Strand to listen to a public lecture at the National Gallery.
She knew nothing about art but she knew that she liked it. One of the lunchtime lecturers noticed her interest and suggested that she should switch to reading art history as her third option. She followed his advice and took a first in finals.
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