Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 24, 2023

Latecomers (1988), by Anita Brookner

As you can see from my reviews of Anita Brookner’s novels which are within the obituary I wrote on the occasion of her death in 2016, I thought I had her ‘pegged’ as an author of bitter-sweet stories of intelligent middle-class older women reflecting on their poor choices and their wasted lives.  These women were emotionally stilted, isolated from society and disappointed by men.  I admired her writing, her brilliantly perceptive descriptions and her often droll style, but I always had to be ‘in the mood’ to read a Brookner.

But…

An episode of Backlisted (about Raymond Chandler, of all people!) began as usual with the chat about who’d been reading what, and Andy Miller told the listeners about a Brookner novel I didn’t know, quite different to the others I had read:

Latecomers, he said, is an incredibly moving book about two men who came to England as evacuees on the Kindertransport. At first it seems like a book about the friendship between these two men, and about their lives and their families.  But gradually you realise that Brookner is sketching a portrait of the effect of a terrible wrench away from home and family on a whole life.  This trauma, he said, is rendered with great emotional and intellectual control.  It appears elegant, subtle and understated, but it’s incredibly ambitious.

Latecomers was on the TBR with a bunch of other Brookners that I’d found at Diversity Books.) January 27th is Holocaust Memorial Day 2023, so I decided to retrieve it from the shelf…

But first, a word about another book I’ve read about the Kindertransport experience.  Years ago, at the Melbourne Writers Festival when it was at the Malthouse, I met the author of Serry and Me, Kindertransport & Beyond (2001) by Elfie Rosenberg.  She had been just eight years old when in 1939 she was smuggled out of Nazi Germany with her fifteen-year-old sister and not reunited with her parents until eight years later.  My most vivid memory of our conversation over lunch was her ambivalence.  She said that she felt that compared to what others suffered in the Holocaust, her experience was ‘not so bad’ and that it had taken some persuasion for her to contribute her story to the Write Your Story Makor Project (now run by the Lamm Jewish Library of Australia.

Kindertransport, The Final Parting, by Frank Meisler, Hamburg Dammtor station (Wikipedia)

Elfie had stayed with a kindly family in Gloucestershire, and she had the companionship of her sister, but the trauma of the separation and her parents weeping on that last night stayed with her forever.  And what she has in common with all other victims of the Nazis, is the horror that the country of her birth was implementing a monstrous genocide in pursuit of their absurd Aryan fantasy of a master race.  In what must also have been a terrible wrench for Elfie’s parents, they sent her to safety because her life was at risk.

It is this persisting trauma that Brookner portrays with such finesse.  Her characters Hartmann and Fibich bond at boarding school over their shared experience of the Kindertransport, neither of them ever to see their family again. Yet they build a successful life in Britain, going into business together, printing greeting-cards and then running a photocopier business which enables them to live comfortably. They marry, and have children, and their very close friendship means that they live in the same block of flats and socialise with each other regularly.

Hartmann appears to come to terms with his losses by denying them.  Nostalgia he thinks, is only for the securely based.

However, no man is free of his own history. Hartmann was no exception.  But in the interests of damage limitation he had struck a bargain with the fates: he would, in so far as he could, employ the maximum good will at his disposal in an effort to screen out the undesirable, the inadvertent, those shocks against which the mere mortal is powerless.  He would, he had long ago decided, be deliberately euphoric. (p.7)

He lives a life of pleasure, enjoying good food, elegant clothes and a light-hearted, optimistic approach to the future.  He has a rather ditzy wife called Yvette, who is preoccupied with the kind of domestic ambitions that were common for women in the 1950s, which suits him fine. They have a quiet, biddable daughter who produces grandchildren for Hartmann to love.

Fibich, on the other hand, suffers from chronic anxiety.  Hartmann was twelve when evacuated, Fibich was only seven.  His last memory is of his mother fainting at the train station, and this melancholy image haunts him. Where Hartmann — through his effort of will — chooses not to remember, Fibich cannot remember anything except the distress of this last moment, and an image of himself as a very small, very plump boy, engulfed in a large wing chair which he knew to be called the Voltaire, feeling lazy, replete, and secure in the dying light of a winter afternoon.

Fibich marries the undemanding Christine, who bears him a son both prodigy and prodigal but he fears the future, he is plagued by dreams, and he is troubled by his envy of Hartmann who seemed so easily to accept the world as it was.  He knows he cannot recapture his lost life, but he yearns for the essential part, the part that would have explained his character and would have furnished him with a lineage [that] was irrevocably missing. 

As a boy boarding with Hartmann’s Aunt Marie who had providently married an Englishman, he would walk the Heath with Hartmann, wondering if this life would ever end, since he knew he could not go home again. 

His terror and despair were without measure.  Sometimes, in the evening, he would forfeit his place in front of the electric fire and disappear to be sick. Aunt knew this, though it was never mentioned.  It was Hartmann who took care of him, although Fibich was adept at being sick without anyone noticing.  ‘Sit here, Thomas’, Aunt would say, as he came back, white-faced, into the drawing-room.  ‘Sit down and get warm. You are quite safe here, you know.’ She was good in that way, never got alarmed or hysterical, so that the symptom passed as he got older, although he always had a sensitive stomach and loathed unusual food… (p.31)

He always remembered her kindness, that she would put extra sugar from her ration into Fibich’s cup. 

As the novel progresses, other traumas are revealed, which puts into perspective the characterisation of the wives, Yvette and Christine.  They are of their time, Yvette’s amorousness devoted entirely to herself and the always uncertain Christine, too ready IMO to suffer in silence.  But they have back stories too: Yvette’s in anti-Semitic France is so shocking that Hartmann reassesses his retirement plans.

I wonder what prompted Brookner to tackle this theme, mid-career and almost half a century after the Kindertransports began…  Was there an anniversary event that piqued her interest? Did she meet someone with a devastating personal history? Was it whataboutery? did someone say to her, instead of writing about all those women and their discontents, what about writing about the tragedy of trauma rather than missed opportunities? Or was it that she (1928-2016) was part of that generation that lived through the war and amid the flood of postwar migration, felt the need to examine a different sort of latecomer: the unaccompanied child refugee?  Perhaps she wanted to give voice to those who suppressed their Holocaust experience because it was ‘not so bad’…

Because really, the lifelong trauma for those children of the Kindertransport was catastrophic.

Image credits:

Kindertransport, The Final Parting, one of a series of group sculptures by Israeli architect and sculptor Frank Meisler (himself a Kindertransport evacuee)  (1925-2018), Hamburg Dammtor station By Alraunenstern – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=53777182

Author: Anita Brookner
Title: Latecomers
Publishers: Flamingo, (Harper Collins), 1992, first published in 1988
Cover design: detail from Basket of Flowers, by Jan van Huysum in The Alte Pinakothek, Munich.
ISBN: 9780006545224, pbk., 191 pages
Source: personal copy, purchased from Diversity Books


Responses

  1. Lisa, I wholeheartedly agree with you on Latecomers, and about Brookner in general, although I never seem to tire of her ability to bring to life the troubled, middle-aged, middle-class worry-worts that normally populate her books. I sometimes think I must be the only man who really likes and enjoys her writing.
    I have tried to discover why she chose to write this outlier, (Latecomers), but nothing in the biographical or critical material I have read about Ms. Brookner seems to address this. Someone out there should know??

    Like

    • Hi Chris, thanks for your comment, it’s very good to hear from someone else whose read it. And you’re right, someone should know about the genesis of this novel.
      She’s such a prolific writer — I can’t tell from the list at WP which ones are art history books and which are novels, but I think there’s about 25, so I’ve got a long way to go before I could say whether there are other departures in her themes in other books. I shall have a look in the library for a bio, but I don’t rate my chances highly.

      Like

  2. A fine review as always, Lisa. According to Google, Professor Dame Hermione Lee is working on a biography of Anita Brookner currently.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. A biography of her would be wonderful. I still have Hermione Lee’s of Edith Wharton to read.

    I remember when this came out and its sounding different from my experience of her.

    I’d like to read this one.

    Like

    • The 1980s was when I was reading bolshie feminists like Faye Weldon, Mary Wesley and Nina Bawden, but I was still reading a lot for uni, so a of my time and money went on books for that.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I’m quite late to Anita Brookner – I think I had to reach an age to appreciate her! My limited experience is definitely as you describe in your opening so this does sound a departure, and a hugely powerful story.

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    • I think you’re right about needing to be a certain age, though I’d love to hear from a younger reader to prove me wrong.
      This makes me wonder what else there is to find…

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Excellent post Lisa, as always. I am only beginning my journey through Brookner’s work, at the very start, but already have had my expectations upended (probably because of the unexpected humour). I’m looking forward to reading more.

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  6. Reblogged this on penwithlit and commented:
    Most interesting and informative!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. This is a Brookner I have not read yet (own a copy). Funnily enough I wondered the same thing when I read the synopsis–what motivated the author?

    Like

    • We will have to wait for that biography to find out, but we will have to make sure that Professor Dame Hermione Lee knows that we are curious about it!

      Like

  8. Incidents in the Rue Laugier

    Like

  9. She is such a subtle writer who can get under the skin of her characters without any showy flourishes. I enjoyed the way she depicted the relationships in this book, the contrasts between them but also the shared experiences.

    Like

    • The characterisation of Toto was superb!

      Like

  10. I’m too am quite late to Anita Brookner and to add to Chris’s comment above I am also a male reader. Interestingly, I began The Bay of Angels yesterday, so it was a pleasant surprise to see this review today.

    Me coming to Brookner is because of this blog Lisa, you mentioned Backlisted once, and I have since binged on it. Andy Miller’s continuing mentions of her work and his love was interesting as I went into a Lifeline a few weeks back and there were 4 of her books, Incidents in the Rue Laugier, Bay of Angels, Falling Slowly and Visitors. All these set me back $2 each and were in tip-top condition for 2nd hand paperbacks. Such a coincidence that I had to buy them.

    I read Incidents and was very impressed. Now over halfway through Bay of Angels and equally impressed. What a writer, thin plots as such but her writing is so good one is dragged in no matter what. All so middle class bourgeois, but it all works.

    Like

    • Well, that is the kind of story I love to hear! $2 each, such bargains:)
      I rarely listen to podcasts because most of them are too much of the presenters and not enough about the book. But I too have been bingeing on Backlisted because they are good to listen to while doing something tedious. And twice now I’ve found something special via the chat that precedes the chosen book. The other one was Doreen (1946), by Barbara Noble which brought my father’s life in the Blitz sand as an evacuee so vividly to life. (https://anzlitlovers.com/2022/11/27/doreen-by-barbara-noble/)

      Liked by 1 person


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