The British novelist Anita Brookner, who died last year at age eighty-seven, suffered from the most misleading of literary reputations. Over the course of several decades and an astonishing twenty-four novels, including the Booker Prize—winning Hotel du Lac , the prevailing myth held that Brookner wrote conservative, middlebrow stories about dull and repressed women.
If Austen popularized the marriage plot, Brookner upended it, immersing us in the emotionally clandestine lives of mistresses and other romantic misfits. Cheated-on wives, in her portrayal, are too self-centered, ruthless, and confident to warrant our compassion. In any case, their marriages and invariably privileged lives are never in jeopardy.
Small, dark, and sardonic, she was tacitly given permission to interrupt her husband, to demand attention, to wait with a cigarette between her long fingers until he lit it for her; and to view me with an amused insistence which seemed to me to hold little indulgence … She was rude, with the rudeness of a moneyed woman who was wealthier than her husband. The gift for demanding attention is, in Brookner-land, the defining characteristic of the successfully married woman.
Yet nurture, not nature, is to blame. Her heroines rarely aspire to personal growth the very phrase would doubtless strike them as embarrassingly American. Nor do they undergo psychotherapy which only features in her novel most explicitly about the Holocaust, Latecomers.
Rachel Kennedy in A Friend from England has aquaphobia and is plagued by recurrent symbolic dreams but considers any kind of self-analysis dangerous. When she is taken up by Nick and Alix Fraser, a glamorous couple she meets through work, deliverance from past mistakes and a brighter future seem possible.
It was then that I saw the business of writing for what it truly was and is to me. It is your penance for not being lucky. It is an attempt to reach others and make them love you.
Smoke wreathed the hot air, and flakes of ash fell on the unheeded plates.
Frances, however, lacks the requisite boldness to either throw a public fit or take a permanent place among the lucky ones. The rewards of fiction writing will do duty, she decides, for more conventional forms of happiness.
Those readers, though, are spoiled for choice elsewhere, nowadays more than ever. Remember Me. Anita Brookner.
Hotel du Lac by Anita Brookner in Tamil
Photo: Rex Features.