Julian Barnes remembers his friend Anita Brookner: ‘There was no one remotely like her’

Anita leaning across the lunch table to examine what was on my plate: “How is that?” she asks, and then, with one of her broader, more expectant smiles: “Disappointing?” Anita telling me that she had just completed a novel, dropping her voice to add, in a low, confidential tone, “It’s about … a lonely woman.” Anita, who was always in situ, however early I arrived, greeting me with her usual unsettling opener: “So, what have you got for me?” Lunch never took longer than 75 minutes; she usually ordered fish, then black coffee, with which she would smoke two cigarettes. (For quite a while these were Sovereign, a sort of low-rent Benson & Hedges: it was the only less than stylish accoutrement I ever noted about her.) Anita telling me that she had just completed a further novel, and with that off her desk she was now free to do whatever she wanted. “Well, in your case,” I said, with joke-jocularity, “That probably means rereading Proust.” There was a slightly alarmed silence: “How did you guess?” At fairly regular intervals, she would ask me how old I was. I would tell her, and she would respond, with a kind of enthusiastic melancholy, “Another 10 good years.” Over the next couple of decades, the same question was repeated, and exactly the same response to my reply; though as time passed, I couldn’t help noticing that the enthusiasm diminished into a kind of sympathetic hopefulness.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 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. I once went into a London local radio station for an interview and the team there were still in a state of shock from having had Anita in for a (very rare) appearance the previous day. I asked what had happened. “She answered every question truthfully,” they replied. Indeed; and not what they were used to. I knew her – not well – for 30 years. There was no one remotely like her, and no one whose presence had anything approaching the same effect. I was not the only one to find that my conversation changed when sitting opposite her. Vocabulary and grammar were self-scrutinised in the microsecond before they emerged from my mouth; I even found myself punctuating my own conversation – putting in semicolons, for God’s sake. She herself would remain calm, amused, in control. And then you might say something like, “What do you think of Boucher?” (or any one of a thousand painters), and she would be transformed, more alive than at any other time. She would answer precisely, intensely, at length, with great passion, eyes aglow, and even occasionally letting drop some personal detail. She once told me that the happiest time of her life was when she was in France doing her doctorate on Greuze, and travelling round provincial art galleries by bus, in fog. The fog was very important to the happiness, you felt.

And, lest we forget, she spent far longer teaching, thinking and writing about art than she did as a practising novelist. If we were not lamenting “Booker prize-winning author Anita Brookner”, we would be remembering more fully one of the most luminously perceptive writers on art in recent times, and a teacher who inspired lifelong devotion. Eighteenth and 19th-century French art were her main concerns: she wrote brilliantly on Watteau and David, and with equal insight into the two mutually repelling poles of mid-19th century French art – Delacroix and Ingres. Her art writing is academic in the best sense: high-minded, compact, the result of deep study, yet fully available to the general intelligent reader. Her rigour is as compelling as her prose, and her judgments, when negative, are astringent. Thus she decries “the deathless and morbid imprint” that Baudelaire tried to leave on Delacroix; and is unforgiving about “the protective coating of infantilism” assumed by William Blake and others. Her criticism, like her world-view, was grown up. One sentence from her hilariously cogent review of a new edition of the Book of Job: “Bildad the Shuhite is also of the tedious opinion that suffering enobles.”

We met in 1984, having both been shortlisted for the Booker prize. When our mutual editor Liz Calder rang her up to report the news, 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.” When she won, she went up to the dais, received the cheque, turned to the audience with immaculate poise, and began: “Usually, when I stand up, I go on for about 50 minutes” – then a pause of perfect length, before she added – “with slides.” Afterwards, Malcolm Bradbury (whom I had never met before) came up and slung a consoling arm around my shoulder, “Well,” he said, “I don’t think you should have won. But I don’t think you should have lost to that book.” This was an ignoble remark, but mildly prophetic. The (mainly male) press dubbed her “Modest Anita” and – ignoring her stellar career as an art historian – decided to pigeonhole her as a lonely spinster whose life had not worked out and who therefore consoled herself by writing novels, once a year, as a regular act of comfort, like a posh version of buying herself a box of Quality Street. They took as autobiographical the first line of her first novel, A Start in Life: “Dr Weiss, at 40, knew that her life had been ruined by literature.” But Dr Brookner’s life had not been ruined by literature. At 40, Dr Brookner had just become the first female Slade professor of art at Cambridge. Literature had helped explain the world to her, and continued to do so. And later, when she herself took to fiction, literature gave her a second helping of renown, of a different kind.

She often kept the world at bay, but that didn’t make her lonely. She was over 40 when she finally escaped the emotional pandemonium of life with her parents (whom she loved “painfully”); and after that she lived, I believe, exactly as she wished to. I do not mean she never had emotional buffetings; rather that, insofar as we can ever decide our own way to live, she did. If she didn’t want to do something, she declined. She thought it her social duty to go to certain parties, but her technique was to arrive punctually at the start, do a quick tour, thank her hosts, and leave just as the main gang of roisterers were arriving through the door. She once agreed to come in to our joint publishers and sign her latest novel. Unthreateningly, they had laid out a pile of 100 copies. She sat down, took out her pen, signed 25, and said, “I think that’s enough, don’t you?” And then she left. I used to send her art postcards from foreign trips until I realised that their arrival was never mentioned; so I stopped, and the stopping equally went unmentioned. Once, I saw an announcement of an evening at the National Film Theatre that seemed made for Anita: an assemblage of the very earliest film footage shot in and around Paris. I rang her, and was a quarter of the way into my excited proposal when she cut in with, “No, I think not … ” I felt clumsy, blundering, as if I had crossed some social line. I had; and never made such a suggestion again. Lunch once a year; dinner occasionally; and that was it. A friend of mine once took a camera crew to her flat in Elm Park Gardens. It was sparsely furnished, with a lineup of potted plants on the windowsill. A nervous PA, seeking a form of social entry, tried, “What beautiful flowers, Miss Brookner!” – only to receive the silencing reply, “They’re all new.” Anita wouldn’t have meant to be crushing, I am sure; but she did mean to indicate clearly the nature and remit of what she considered appropriate conversation.

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