Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 15, 2016

Vale Anita Brookner (1928-2016)


Anita Brookner (Source: Wikipedia Commons)

With the death of Anita Brookner today, Britain lost one of its finest writers, and while I still have five of her novels on my TBR, I thought I’d like to share my thoughts about those I’ve already read.

My reading journal from 1997 tells me that I really enjoyed Visitors which was published that year.

Ah, how I enjoy this kind of book!  I read a somewhat churlish review that found Brookner too introspective, claustrophobic and depressing, but I find her insightful.

VisitorsDorothea (Thea) May is jerked from her comfortable solitude as a rather dull recluse by the arrival of Steve Best, a visitor imposed on her by family obligation because of a wedding.  He is not a particularly interesting young man; it is his presence in her home which disconcerts her.  His very being is intrusive, and she finds herself having adventurous fantasies, odd dreams, little episodes of uncharacteristic usefulness and an occasional role on centre stage, as when she persuades the reluctant bride or when she is an unexpected confidante to Austin, bossy Kitty’s husband.

And then all the excitement is over.  She finds the actual event – the wedding – ghastly.  Required to be there, but not wanted, Thea is just another person to confirm the party-giver’s sense of her own hospitality and importance.  Brookner’s novels always provoke reflection on similar personal experiences but she is such a careful, patient,  sensitive observer of detail that one inevitably sees a much bigger picture.  In Visitors we see the invisible elderly, the stoic grey-coated force of British women, alone and rarely considered – but still individuals.

I read two novels by Brookner in 2002: Brief Lives (1990) and Altered States (1996).

Brief Lives BrooknerI thought that Brief Lives had similar elements to Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin, not because of the plot, not at all, but because of the characterisation.

The central character is a woman of the 1930s now grown old and reflecting on her life.  Brookner focusses on the minutiae of daily life to show the wasted lives of women of this generation.  Fay Langdon is a lower middle-class woman of very little ambition and no initiative whatsoever.  Her horizons are bounded entirely by having a man in her life to define her.  She doesn’t even like them very much, and they seem to be a disappointment one way or another.

First there was the husband, who may or may not have been fleecing his firm; then there’s Julia’s husband with whom she has an affair even though he sends ambiguous messages about his feelings for Julia; and finally there is Dr Carter, an utterly selfish man who is determined to avoid being pursued as an eligible male but still wants to use women for sex and some companionship as long as they make no demands.  None of these men offer any emotional support of genuine affection.

And then there’s Julia, a truly horrible woman who exerts a bizarre magnetism on those she meets.  She makes a career of ordering her hapless friends about, insulting them as intellectual and social inferiors.  Yet she manages to behave with such determined helplessness that they find themselves manipulated into meeting her needs.

All this is very interesting and beautifully written with wry insight from Fay, so much so that I felt like giving her a good shake!  She was just like Iris in The Blind Assassin, letting her life go to waste out of sheer inertia and an overdependence on men.

Altered StatesAltered States showed Brookner writing a novel from the male point-of-view.  Having just read something not very satisfactory, I found Altered States an excellent investment of time.

Brookner writes fluently, fluidly and with not a wasted word, creating a novel that was easy to read and yet very thought-provoking.

Alan Sherwood is not a ‘man’s man’ but he’s no wimp either.  He’s a city solicitor, a bachelor sort of fellow, interested in an occasional affair but inclined towards a private, detached sort of life. He falls for the wild and impetuous Sarah, not a nice girl and just as detached as he is.  It drives him mad but he respects her for it, so it’s all the more puzzling that he drifts into an entirely unsatisfactory marriage with Angela – who is boring, lazy and dependent.  She wants a provider, but she despises sex.

When Angela’s baby is stillborn she goes into a decline, blaming him because he wasn’t there for the crisis.  He was in Paris, intending to revive his affair with Sarah, but she didn’t turn up.  [Spoiler removed].  When things go horribly wrong Alan is doomed to guilt, trying to appease the fates with self-sacrifice but only achieving an unsatisfactory life.   As with Brief Lives, Altered States Brookner shows that women of a certain age felt compelled to ‘have a man’ in order to define themselves – a commentary on the generation and a class of women like this.

Incidents in the Rue LaugierMy journal tells me that in 2003 I read ‘another cool, dry, detached tale of sad and wasted lives’ in Incidents in the Rue Laugier (1995).  This one seems a departure in narrative style.

Maffy weaves a story about her dead parents because they were so private, so reticent and so detached from life that she knows very little about them.  IMO This tale tells the reader more about Maffy, only child of Maud and Edward than it does about them.  What need of hers is met by constructing such an elaborate life for them?

Their lives were actually very ordinary.  Edward was a nice, diffident young man of very little ambition.  Everyone else made decisions for him and he drifted into acquiescence, content to do as expected and even quite enjoying it.  Maud was reserved and beautiful, with French hauteur despite the penury of her birth.  Her father died young of TB, and her mother, Nadine, drifted into widowhood and diminished opportunities, enlivened only by the status-conscious generosity of her sister.

On one of those enforced holidays to Nadine’s sister’s country house, Maud met Tyler, a Steedman to David Copperfield, as Edward put it. Women fell for him, and he treated them badly.  In a moment of passion and adventure, Maud went off to Paris with Tyler – Edward in tow.  It all went badly.  Tyler tired of Maud, and Edward proposed when he realised Maud was pregnant. [Spoilers removed]. Although theirs was judged a ‘good’ marriage, Maud always pined for the irretrievable moments of passion and never loved Edward as he loved her.

Maffy packs up their lives and constructs this curious love story from a few fragments in Maud’s notebook.  Perhaps a modern young woman feels a need to create some meaning out of these dull and restricted lives?  Otherwise it is just too sad…

The Rules of EngagementA year later in 2004 I read The Rules of Engagement (2003).  By then I was alert to Brookner’s preoccupations but was still prepared to rate this one highly.

All Brookner’s novels are nostalgic bitter-sweet stories of ageing women reflecting on their poor choices and their wasted lives, and in this one Elizabeth marries because she’s expected to, but it’s dull and safe and meaningless.  She half-envies her friend Betsy who has a much more exciting life in Paris with an activist lover even though of course that’s insecure and doomed to failure and eventually Betsy comes home to poverty in a horrid little flat.

Elizabeth, meanwhile, has taken the only initiative of her whole life, and had an affair, but it all ends badly.  She’s comfortably off in widowhood, so she doesn’t need to work, but the future looks dull and miserable.  When you think of how this generation of women helped to win the war by managing things on the home front, it is tragic how society wrote them off afterwards…

Hotel du Lac2Also in 2004 I read Brookner’s Booker Prize winning Hotel du Lac, and posted my review of it on this blog on International Anita Brookner Day (her 83rd birthday).  (It’s also cross posted at The Complete Booker to which I contribute from time to time).

Perhaps surprisingly, after the Booker win, Brookner’s novels seem to have moved off my radar.  On my TBR I have only earlier novels which turned up at the Op Shop.  The publication dates of these five don’t really give much indication of how prolific she was, publishing a novel almost every year over a quarter of a century: what I have yet to enjoy are Latecomers (1988);  A Closed Eye (1991); A Private View (1994); Falling Slowly (1998);  and Undue Influence (1999).

Brookner wrote two more novels after The Rules of Engagement: they were Leaving Home in 2005 and Strangers in 2009.  There was a novella called At the Hairdressers in 2011, which seems to have been her last work.  She is a writer who should not be forgotten: in her way she spoke for a whole generation of women  – our mothers, who were denied the opportunities that we have had, and sometimes, like Brookner, we judged them too harshly for it.

Do read Christina Patterson’s eloquent tribute to Anita Brookner at the Guardian – she says that Brookner’s quiet stories speak to younger generations too…





  1. I didn’t see this Lisa. I’ve read a few Brookners but almost none of those that you have – except for Hotel du Lac. As well as it, I’ve read Look at me, Family and friends, and A friend from England. All very early works. I’ve always meant to read more recent ones but time just kept slipping away. I loved the elegance of her prose (if that doesn’t sound too pompous), and her analysis of loneliness and isolation (particularly for women).


    • Yes, elegant, that’s just the right word. I’m a bit puzzled as to why I don’t have her more recent books: did the indie bookshops stop stocking her novels, or did I just miss them?


      • I have a feeling that she did slip from view a bit in Australia. Some indies might have kept her book, but they probably stopped putting them front and centre, maybe because she was fairly prolific??


        • I just read an article in a UK paper (which I would link to but it took forever to load) which said that Brookner was probably out of favour with ‘today’s young feminists’. Maybe that has something to do with it.
          She was bleakly honest about the way women sabotaged themselves, at least in the novels I read…


          • Yes, that makes sense … And certainly her books did feel they came from another place and time but here’s what gets me, do we only read our own place and time? Particularly if the writing is wonderful?


  2. I’m glad you have acknowledged this fine writer. Hotel du Lac was my introduction to her work and I’ve probably read about five or six of her novels. We tend to forget Brookner was also an international authority on eighteenth- and nineteenth-century painting and wrote books about Watteau and David.


    • Hi Ros:) I just had a quick look to see what I could find of her art books, and there’s one called Romanticism and its Discontents which appeals.
      She was a great admirer of Zola (as am I) and apparently she ” traces how French Romanticism followed the political turmoil of the late 18th century and the defeat of Waterloo in 1815, and replaced the agnosticism of the Enlightenment and Revolution with a new heroism. Examining the works of Delacroix, Ingres and Gros, the brothers Goncourt, Baudelaire, Zola, Alfred de Musset and Huysmans, she argues that the Romantics in France made the heroism of modern life their creed and transferred their idealism to the domain of art, either as practitioners or as critics.”
      The exchange rate is horrible but I have ordered it anyway…


  3. This is sad news, Lisa. I have two Anita Brookner novels ‘Hotel du Lac’ and ‘Latecomers’. I read the first few pages of ‘Latecomers’ and loved the prose – you and Whisperinggums have described it perfectly, it was elegant. I hope to read atleast these two of her books one of these days.

    Lovely tribute, Lisa. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on Brookner.


    • Thanks, Vishy, I’d be so interested to know what people in India thought of her ideas. I think she must have had a huge international profile in other countries too because many of her books are available in translation.


  4. It was just too tempting to get out Hotel du Lac and re-read. Found myself laughing out loud at Brookner’s wicked humour. Let’s lighten up a little about ‘bleakness’ and ‘isolation’ and ‘sabotaged’ women; three cheers for her sly wit. As a Pom (maybe ex-Pom by now) I can really appreciate the way she demolishes pretension and stuffiness. The first chapter of the novel is a comic gem. Am I allowed to use Australian vernacular on a ‘family blog’ and write that she ‘takes the p..s’ magnificently?


    • Yes, you’re right, she is great at pricking pomposity!


  5. As per usual you got there before I did, Lisa. My tribute to Anita Brookner will appear this coming weekend.


    • LOL That makes up for all the times I’m so late to the party maybe?


  6. How strange it is that she so often reprises the same character types, in particular the sad, apparently disconnected young woman with connections to the world of art , and there is an inevitability to the trajectory of her stories, but she continues to be gripping and intriguing. Another example of the power of the writerly personality, I think, making her world view so memorable.


    • Yes, you’re right, and usually we would say that an author who does this is rewriting the same story with different characters. But somehow with Brookner the books kept coming and all of them (that I’ve read) are memorable.


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