I am one of those unusual dudes who reads fiction more for the sentences than for the story. Well everybody has got a story, but few can write good sentences. Anita Brookner had a way with a sentence that I love.
Like nearly everyone else, I discovered Anita Brookner with her novel ‘Hotel du Lac’ back in the early 1980s. After that I went back and read her earlier novels ‘The Debut’, ‘Providence’, and ‘Look At Me’. By then, I was a hardened Anita Brookner fan, and tried to read every novel she wrote as it was published, but I could not keep up with her.
What kind of novels did Anita Brookner write? These novels might be considered a sort of romance novel but not your typical happily-ever-after kind. They usually center on an entirely sufficient successful young woman. As she was brought up, this young woman had been told repeatedly to find a man to be her husband, but she did not feel much urge to do so. Her heroines are usually reasonably content in their own company. Then the woman meets a man who appeals to her. The relationship appears to be idyllic until at some point the woman decides to back off. Afterward she may be somewhat rueful about ending the relationship, but she realizes she made the necessary decision.
Anita Brookner never married herself, but she seemed to be entirely fascinated with relationships. She has described herself as “a poor unfortunate creature who writes about poor unfortunate creatures”. She liked to make jokes about being “the world’s loneliest, most miserable woman”, but she was actually a highly successful career woman. She was an authority on eighteenth century painting, the first female Slade Professor at Cambridge University. She did not start writing novels until she was fifty-two, but then wrote almost a novel a year for twenty-five years.
I’ve read many of the tributes that have recently been written about Anita Brookner, and some use the words gloomy, melancholy, and monotonous to describe her work. For me, these words do not fit at all. If anything, her novels make me feel exuberant. It is a rare treat to find someone who can express the thoughts of her characters in such a clear, objective, and eloquent fashion as Anita Brookner.
Here are some fine lines by Anita Brookner I like:
“No blame should attach to telling the truth. But it does, it does.”
“I felt at one with all those people on the sidelines of life, forced to contemplate the successful maneuvers in which others were engaged, obliged to listen politely and to refrain from comment.”
“I have been too harsh on women, she thought, because I understand them better than I understand men.”
“For once a thing is known, it can never be unknown. It can only be forgotten.”
“Good women always think it is their fault when someone else is being offensive. Bad women never take the blame for anything.”
“I’ve never got on very well with Jane Austen.”
“It will be a pity if women in the more conventional mold are to be phased out, for there will never be anyone to go home to.”
“Like many rich men, he thought in anecdotes; like many simple women, she thought in terms of biography.”
“Romanticism is not just a mode; it literally eats into every life. Women will never get rid of just waiting for the right man. “
“You have no idea how promising the world begins to look once you have decided to have it all for yourself. And how much healthier your decisions are once they become entirely selfish.”
“A man of such obvious and exemplary charm must be a liar.”
“All she does is tell her stories. With her unfashionable restraint, with the glow of unshowy intelligence on every page she writes, with the brevity and directness of her novels, and with her self-effacing willingness to put her imagination entirely at the service of the story she’s telling, Brookner is an artist of an exceptional purity.”
Brookner is for those people who are in this literature thing for real. I expect that Anita Brookner will be one of the few modern writers whose works will continue to be read for a long time.