Brookner, Anita 1928–
Brookner, Anita 1928–
PERSONAL: Born July 16, 1928, in London, England; daughter of Newson (a company director) and Maude (a singer; maiden name, Schiska) Brookner. Education: King's College, London, B.A., 1949; Courtauld Institute of Art, London, Ph.D., 1953; three-year postgraduate scholarship in Paris.
ADDRESSES: Agent—A.M. Heath, 79 St. Martin's Lane, London WC2, England.
CAREER: Writer. University of Reading, Reading, England, visiting lecturer in the history of art, 1959–64; Courtauld Institute of Art, London, lecturer, 1964–77, reader in the history of art, 1977–87 (retired); Cambridge University, Slade Professor of Art, 1967–68, New Hall fellow.
AWARDS, HONORS: Royal Society of Literature fellow, 1983; Booker McConnell Prize, National Book League, 1984, for Hotel du Lac; Commander, Order of the British Empire, 1990; Booker Prize, 2002, for The Next Big Thing.
NONFICTION; ART HISTORY AND CRITICISM
(Translator) Waldemar George, Utrillo, Oldbourne Press (London, England), 1960.
(Translator) Jean-Paul Crespelle, The Fauves, Oldbourne Press (London, England), 1962.
(Translator) Maximilien Gauthier, Gauguin, Oldbourne Press (London, England), 1963.
J.A. Dominique Ingres, Purnell (London, England), 1965.
Watteau, Hamlyn (London, England), 1968.
The Genius of the Future: Studies in French Art Criticism, Phaidon (London, England), 1971, published as The Genius of the Future: Essays in French Art Criticism, Cornell University Press (Ithaca, NY), 1988.
Greuze: The Rise and Fall of an Eighteenth-Century Phenomenon, Elek (London, England), 1972, New York Graphic Society (Greenwich, CT), 1974.
Jacques-Louis David, Chatto & Windus (London, England), 1980, Harper (New York, NY), 1981, revised edition, Thames & Hudson (New York, NY), 1987.
Soundings: Studies in Art and Literature (essays; art and literature criticism), Harvill Press (London, England), 1997.
Romanticism and Its Discontents, Farrar, Straus & Giroux (New York, NY), 2000.
Also author of An Iconography of Cecil Rhodes, 1956. Contributor of essays on Rigaud, Delacroix, Ingres, and Cezanne to a British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) production on painters, 1980, published as Great Paintings, edited by Edwin Mullins, St. Martin's Press, 1981. Contributor to The Brothers Goncourt and the Nineteenth-Century Novel, edited by Richard Faber, Boydell (Wolfeboro, NH), 1988. Also contributor to "The Masters" series, Purnell (London, England), 1965–67.
The Debut, Linden Press (New York, NY), 1981, published as A Start in Life, J. Cape (London, England), 1981.
Providence, J. Cape (London, England), 1982, Pantheon (New York, NY), 1984.
Look at Me, Pantheon (New York, NY), 1983.
Hotel du Lac, Pantheon (New York, NY), 1984.
Family and Friends, Pantheon (New York, NY), 1985.
A Misalliance, J. Cape (London, England), 1986, published as The Misalliance, Pantheon (New York, NY), 1987.
A Friend from England, Pantheon (New York, NY), 1987.
Latecomers, Random House (New York, NY), 1988.
Lewis Percy, J. Cape (London, England), 1989, Pantheon (New York, NY), 1990.
Brief Lives, J. Cape (London, England), 1990, Random House, (New York, NY), 1991.
A Closed Eye, J. Cape (London, England), 1991, Random House (New York, NY), 1992.
Fraud, J. Cape (London, England), 1992, Random House (New York, NY), 1993.
A Family Romance, J. Cape (London, England), 1993, published as Dolly,Random House (New York, NY), 1994.
A Private View, J. Cape (London, England), 1994, Random House (New York, NY), 1995.
Incidents in the Rue Laugier, J. Cape (London, England), 1995, Random House (New York, NY), 1996.
Altered States, J. Cape (London, England), 1996, Random House (New York, NY), 1997.
Visitors, J. Cape (London, England), 1997, Random House (New York, NY), 1998.
Falling Slowly, Viking (London, England), 1998, Random House (New York, NY), 1999.
Undue Influence: A Novel, Viking (London, England), 1999, Random House (New York, NY), 2000.
The Bay of Angels, Viking (London, England), 2001, Random House (New York, NY), 2002.
The Next Big Thing, Viking (London, England), 2002, published as Making Things Better, Random House (New York, NY), 2003.
The Rules of Engagement, Random House (New York, NY), 2003.
Leaving Home, Viking (New York, NY), 2005.
(Author of introduction) The House of Mirth, Mac-millan (New York, NY), 1987.
(Editor and author of introduction) Edith Wharton, The Stories of Edith Wharton,Volume 2, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1988.
(Selector and author of introduction) Edith Wharton, The Collected Stories of Edith Wharton, Carroll & Graf (New York, NY), 1998.
(Author of introduction) L.P. Hartley, Eustace and Hilda: A Trilogy, New York Review Books (New York, NY), 2001.
Also author of introduction to Margaret Kennedy's Troy Chimneys, Virago, 1985, Edith Templeton's The Island of Desire, 1985, Summer in the Country, 1985, and Living on Yesterday, 1986. Contributor of book reviews and articles to periodicals, including Burlington, London Review of Books, London Standard, London Sunday Times, Observer, Spectator, Times Literary Supplement, and Writer.
ADAPTATIONS: An adaptation of Hotel du Lac was coproduced in 1985 by the BBC and the Arts and Entertainment Network.
SIDELIGHTS: Anita Brookner is internationally acclaimed for her extensive knowledge and incisive explications of eighteenth-and nineteenth-century French artists and their work. She is an accomplished novelist as well, penning more than twenty novels since 1981, including the Booker McConnell prize-winning Hotel du Lac. Critical response to her work has included a great deal of praise, but Phillip Lopate dispelled whatever skepticism a first-time reader might have about the caliber or profusion of Brookner's work in the New York Times Book Review: "Yes, she is that good, and she keeps producing quality fiction at a calm, even rate precisely because she knows what she is doing. Each new Brookner novel seems a guarantee of the pleasures of a mature intelligence, felicitous language, quirky humor, intensely believable characters, bittersweet karma and shapely narrative."
Brookner, the first woman to be named Slade Professor of Art at Cambridge University, once referred to herself in a Saturday Review interview as a "speculative" art historian rather than a scholar. Her work attempts to position a subject within a larger context. For instance, The Genius of the Future: Studies in French Art Criticism, based upon Brookner's Slade lectures during the late 1960s, offers "paradigmatic" presentations of Diderot, Stendhal, Baudelaire, Zola, the Brothers Goncourt, and Huysmans, and identifies each with a principal idea that becomes a "touchstone for her discussion," wrote Robert E. Hosmer, Jr. in the Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook: 1987. Hosmer considered The Genius of the Future "a work of impeccable scholarship, precise, carefully annotated and designed, whose grace and narrative ease enable the discerning reader, whether art historian or layperson, to read it with pleasure and profit." Greuze: The Rise and Fall of an Eighteenth-Century Phenomenon grew out of Brookner's doctoral dissertation and sought to restore Jean-Baptiste Greuze to the historical recognition she believes his work warrants, said Hosmer, who called it "intellectually vital and engagingly written." A New York Times Book Review contributor similarly remarked that Brookner's "commanding acquaintance with everything and everybody, minor and major, in art, literature, and philosophy … is staggering, and the grace with which she organizes the minutiae to give them an air of spontaneity even more so." Brookner's Jacques-Louis David: A Personal Interpretation, the published version of her address to the British Academy in 1974, offers a biographical profile of the artist and traces the progress of his work. "Clearly a blueprint" for her lengthy study six years later, commented Hosmer, the work "testifies to Brookner's powers as a critical scholar and her charms as a lecturer: her text displays learning animated by anecdotal wit." In her subsequent major study, Jacques-Louis David,Brookner blends biography, history, and criticism to reveal that the artist's shifts in subject matter and style reflect political changes in France from the Revolution to the restoration of the monarchy twenty-five years later. Calling it "a reciprocal reading," Hosmer explained that Brookner demonstrates "how David was both formed by the sociopolitical/cultural context and how he helped to shape the forces creating that context." Praised by Richard Cobb in the Times Literary Supplement as "an art historian of great sensitivity and understanding," Brookner "provides a superb show of investigative work, a thorough and intelligent probing of the meaning of a man's art," maintained Celia Betsky in the New Republic.
Soundings: Studies in Art and Literature is a collection of essays written over a span of twenty-five years. The collection begins with essays on three nineteenth-century French artists, Gericault, Ingres, and Delacroix, and goes on to discuss the complex history of and tension between French Neoclassicism and Romanticism. Culled from Brookner's contributions to the Times Literary Supplement and the London Review of Books, the collection was generally well received by critics. "Her style evinces a contagious love of culture," asserted Douglas F. Smith in Library Journal. "It's to her credit that many of these reviews, some dating back to 1975, are far less stale than their onetime targets." "Brookner's survey of the last century can't help but provoke a pang of nostalgia for the classical urge manifested by these characters," wrote a Publishers Weekly reviewer.
Published in England as A Start in Life and in the United States as The Debut, Brookner's first novel concerns Ruth Weiss, a literary scholar in her forties who tries to escape a suffocating life of studying literature and coping with the demands of her aging parents. Disillusioned with literary notions that patience and virtue will triumph in the end, Ruth embraces the opportunistic view of the world expressed by Balzac; after the romantic affair she plans misfires, she returns home to care for her dying parents, and resigns herself to a lonely middle age. "As well as the arm's length of wit, there is a great deal of precision and perception" in Brookner's rendering of Ruth's story, commented Anne Duchene in the Times Literary Supplement. And although Duchene believed that Brookner goes too far in blaming literature "for the festering resentments of filial dutifulness," this "hardly matters, given the confidence of the telling." Art Seidenbaum remarked in a Los Angeles Times review: "The art historian who studied portraiture and landscapes also knows the terrain of the heart. Her heroine is almost historic, tethered to responsibility, but her technique is modern, hard-edged and as uneuphemistic as today."
With her second novel, Providence, Brookner "effectively claims her territory as a writer," suggested Frances Taliaferro in Harper's. The story focuses on an-other academic—Kitty Maule, a reserved, elegantly dressed professor of Romantic literature at a small, well-funded British college. Never having known her British father, Kitty was raised in the French traditions by her maternal grandparents—French and Russian immigrants, and feels like a foreigner in her native England. She falls in love with a handsome and clever colleague, Maurice Bishop, whose unshakable self-assurance and Catholic faith further impede her desire to assimilate into British culture. The New York Times' Michiko Kakutani, who praised Brookner's "sharp eye for the telling detail" and "graceful, economical way with words," pronounced Brookner a "master at creating miniaturist portraits of attenuated lives." However, because Brookner narrates the novel almost exclusively in terms of Kitty and through her perspective alone, according to Joyce Kornblatt in the Washington Post,the reader does not see her in a larger context—its "very strength—the vivid creation of Kitty Maule—becomes its limitation." Nonetheless, Kornblatt called the novel "perfectly observed and quietly witty," and praised its craft: "Each expertly paced scene is brought to life through a fastidious accretion of detail, a fine ear for speech, a narrative diction that is always intelligent and often arresting."
In Look at Me, her third novel, Brookner portrays the life of Frances Hinton, a young librarian at a British medical institute. Her dreary job of cataloging and filing pictures of death and disease is relieved only by observing the other staff members who frequent the institute's archives. Upon returning to her apartment, bequeathed by her deceased mother, she spends solitary evenings writing about the day's observations. Nick Fraser, an attractive young doctor at the institute, with his glamorous wife, Alix, befriends Frances and welcomes her into their intimate circle of friends. They introduce her to Nick's colleague James, with whom Frances shares a chaste romance; but when Frances and James try to secure some privacy in their relationship, they exclude Alix, who then abandons Frances. Angered, Frances finds release in writing the novel that becomes Look at Me. In a Washington Post Book Worldreview, Julia Epstein deemed the book "a nearly impossible achievement, a novel about emptiness and vacancy." Believing that the protagonist's novel is "not so much self-reflexive as self-digesting, its material imaged and converted into prose even as it unfolds in Frances' life," Epstein concluded that Look at Me is "simultaneously a tragedy of solitude and loss, and a triumph of the sharp-tongued controlling self."
Brookner's fourth novel, Hotel du Lac, won the 1984 Booker McConnell Prize, Britain's most prestigious literary award. Like her three earlier novels, it is about romance and loneliness in the life of a discreet, educated, literary woman with conventional dreams of love and marriage; unlike her earlier novels, it suggests that rewards accompany boldness rather than goodness. The story centers on a thirty-nine-year-old London romance novelist, Edith Hope, who jilts her fiancée on her wedding day. Exiled to an off-season Swiss hotel by her family and friends, she spends her time observing the other guests, involving herself in their personal lives, writing letters to her married lover, and working on her latest novel. Edith's popular novels promote the romantic equivalent of Aesop's fable of the tortoise and the hare—that slow and steady wins the race; however, while Edith publicly acknowledges the falsity of the myth, she privately clings to romantic ideals of perfect love. The New York Times' John Gross, who considered Brookner "one of the finest novelists of her generation," called Hotel du Lac "a novel about romance, and reality, and the gap between them and the way the need for romance persists in the full knowledge of that gap." What distinguishes this novel from Brookner's previous novels, remarked Anne Tyler in the Washington Post Book World, is that in Hotel du Lac, "the heroine is more philosophical from the outset, more self-reliant, more conscious that a solitary life is not, after all, an unmitigated tragedy."
A Misalliance returns to a type of character familiar from Brookner's earlier novels—a repressed, intellectual woman who finds herself defined by the man she loves. Rejected by her husband of more than twenty years for his secretary, Blanche Vernon still yearns for his occasional visits and spends time in museums contemplating the two contrasting archetypes of woman she sees in paintings: pleasure-loving nymphs of ancient mythology and dutiful saints who personify emotional martyrdom. According to Kakutani, the character sees herself as the inevitable loser in a contest between women who are "calm, sincere, doting and honest in their dealing with men," and those who are "sly, petulant, manipulative and demanding." Washington Post Book World columnist Jonathan Yardley thought that what distinguishes this protagonist from her predecessors, though, "is that she had her chance at love and, much though she wanted to seize it, failed to do so out of misunderstanding and uncertainty." Critical consensus confirms that the novel solidified Brookner's status as a master of prose. Yardley believed that "in writing about these lonely women, she has universal business in mind: the peculiarities and uncertainties of love, the relationship between fate and will, the connections—and disconnections—between art and reality." However, in the New York Times Book Review, Fernanda Eberstadt lauded what she thought was the novel's "rather salutary and peculiarly welcome message, namely, that keeping up appearances in hard times is a virtue in itself, that kindness, self-restraint, good housekeeping and a certain cheerful worldliness may after all save the day. To this message, delivered with a lucid and refined intelligence and an invigorating asperity of tone, one can respond only with gratitude and pleasure."
A Friend from England presents a female protagonist who has recovered neither from the loss of her parents nor from a disillusioning love affair with a married man. Part owner of a London bookstore, Rachel lives alone in a bleak apartment and becomes increasingly involved in the sumptuous lifestyle of her accountant's family, the Livingstones, who are recent winners of the football pools. Rachel serves as a companion of sorts to their twenty-seven-year-old daughter, Heather. Although not especially fond of her charge, Rachel encourages her into independence; then, fearful of becoming a surrogate daughter to the Livingstones, reverses herself and tries to persuade Heather to return to her family. Describing Rachel as "repellently cold and cerebral," Deborah Singmaster added in the Times Literary Supplement that "she becomes increasingly sinister as the book progresses … her blundering insensitivity as she thrusts herself into the disintegrating lives of the Livingstones is mesmerizing." Praising Brookner's "unrivalled eye for the details of appearance and behaviour," Heather Neill added in the Listener: "Often she writes like someone describing a painting or a photography…. She can take her reader into an environment, conjuring the feel of a place, paying particular attention to light and heat, colour and texture." Although he did not find the novel to be one of Brookner's best, Michael Gorra noted in the Washington Post Book World that the beginning of the novel "is as classically elegant as anything Anita Brookner has written and shows why, in its concentration on the limitations of gentility, hers is one of the most characteristically English voices to emerge in the last decade."
Latecomers, considered by critics to be among Brookner's most poignant novels, focuses upon two male characters. Orphaned during the Holocaust, Thomas Fibich and Thomas Hartmann escape Nazi Germany to become schoolmates, friends, and then successful business partners in England. Each character attempts to reconcile himself to the past in a different way, but both rely heavily on the strength and constancy of familial relationships to establish their place in the present. Brookner's "rich, utterly convincing portrayals of Fibich and Hartmann are likely to go a long way in dispelling any labeling of her as a 'women's writer' and in bolstering her reputation for drawing characters with the scrupulousness of a master draftsman," wrote Jocelyn McClurg in the Los Angeles Times. Yardley called it "a book not about romantic love but about love in the real world: about accepting and loving people for what they are rather than what one might wish them to be, about the slow, secret ways in which people work themselves so deeply into each other's hearts that extrication is unimaginable, about the acceptance and even celebration of human imperfection."-Suggesting that "few writers can offer better, more specific insight than Anita Brookner,"Bonnie Burnard maintained in the Toronto Globe and Mail: "Her conclusions seem valid, not arrogantly wise or uptown smart…. She is in control and has at her disposal a vast, accessible vocabulary of both spoken words and private thought. She can bring to life, calmly and sharply, place, gesture, attitude, intonation; she has mastered the master strokes." Finding the novel "written with grace and elegance that border on the astonishing,"Yardley concluded, "At her own pace and in her own fashion, Anita Brookner works a spell on the reader; being under it is both an education and a delight."
Lewis Percy traces an inhibited young man's quest for tranquility; or as Carol Shields put it in her Toronto Globe and Mail review, it is "a book about finding an appropriate mode of heroism for our times." Lonely following the death of his mother, Lewis marries Tissy, a library coworker, in an attempt to rescue her from a stifling life. When she falsely suspects him of sleeping with Emmy, the wife of a library colleague, "Lewis struggles to act honorably and keep his marriage vows, thereby antagonizing both women," wrote Lopate. The characterization of Lewis recalls that of Ruth in A Start in Life, observed Julian Symons in the Times Literary Supplement: "Both are immersed in literature, Ruth an authority on Balzac, Lewis working on a thesis about the concept of heroism in the nineteenth-century novel, which in due time becomes a book and brings him a job in the college library. Both find living a trickier business than reading about it." The novel "bears the clear imprint of a painterly quality of mind," wrote Tyler: "The plot derives less from a chain of events than from a juxtaposition of portraits, each more detailed than the last. People we'd be unlikely to notice on our own … take on texture and dimension, gradually rising right off the page." Although Isabel Raphael considered the novel "less brilliant and distilled" than Brookner's other writings, she added in her London Times review, "but for me, it glowed with a new serenity and reality which gave great pleasure, along with a sense that I will return more happily in future to this tender and sympathetic author."
Brookner's eleventh novel, Brief Lives, concerns Fay Langdon, a successful but aging businesswoman. After the death of her husband, Fay becomes the mistress of his law partner, thus betraying his wife and her longtime friend, Julia. In recalling the events of her life, Fay begins to question what Nicola Murphy described in the London Times as "her immature and foolish supposition that living would be a happy business." In the Times Literary Supplement, Lindsay Duguid described Fay as "an intelligent narrator, who is sensitive and shrinking but always sure of the superiority of her judgment…. We follow Fay's flat, pathetic first-person story with interest, keen to find out if she will find happiness, suspecting that she will not." Praising Brookner's "infallible precision," Murphy judged the novel "a fine, poised and pointed examination of stoicism in a woman too marginal to be missed. Brief Lives is beautifully written."
In A Closed Eye and Fraud, Brookner continues the theme of female loneliness. In A Closed Eye, Harriet, at her parents' urging, marries Freddie, a rich but dull man who is nearly twice her age. They have a daughter, Imogen, who is killed in a car accident. Harriet has only one friend, Tessa, who also has a daughter, Lizzie. At the novel's close, with all other family and friends either dead or withdrawn from their lives, Harriet and Lizzie end up together. Gabriele Annan found the novel "bleak," but considered it "elegantly constructed." Brookner, as Annan explained in the New York Review of Books, is often compared to Jane Austen, and although this reviewer found significant differences between Austen's women and Brookner's women, Annan admitted that "A Closed Eye does have its Jane Austen side." Namely, noted Annan, "Brookner is a witty and ironic observer of a society she peoples with sharply described characters." What is more, "Brookner has a particular knack for dealing with the sphere where society and locality overlap," capturing "the psyche of each individual [London] quartieras she walks her characters through it or settles them in some wickedly specific abode." In the end, believed Annan, Brookner "is an art historian specializing in eighteenth-and early nineteenth-century French art, and her writing recalls—deliberately or not—the elegant cruelty of certain French novels of the period."
The novel Fraud begins as a mystery with the disappearance of a middle-aged spinster named Anna Durrant. Through flashbacks, the reader learns that Anna has spent much of her life caring for her sickly mother, that her mother's death was followed by a grim winter and late spring, and that Anna had a mild flirtation with her mother's doctor. Through these events, New York Times Book Review contributor Ursula Hegi noted, Brookner offers "unsettling insights into what can happen when the boundaries between aging parents and their children dissolve." In A Family Romance (published in the United States as Dolly) Brookner explores the relationship between the book's narrator, Jane, and Jane's aunt-by-marriage, Dolly. In this novel Brookner examines the characters' differences from several angles—personality, generational, and ethnic. "Brookner's novel tells the story of how this pair … finally develop the bonds that make them a family," Carol Kino noted in the New York Times Book Review.
In A Private View, as with many of her previous novels, Brookner proves that she is both unafraid of and quite adept at exploring the lives of her contemporaries in England, even as they age and retire. "As newly disenfranchised [retired] workers face the prospect of building a life without the familiar routines of a job, profound questions about identity, activity, and purpose arise," commented Marilyn Gardner in the Christian Science Monitor. It is this disenfranchisement that Brookner examines in the life of George Bland of A Private View. A bachelor by default, Bland has just retired from his only job as a personnel manager in a London manufacturing company. The event was supposed to be celebrated by a trip to Asia with his longtime friend Putnam, another lifelong bachelor, but Putnam has just died of cancer. Now, though comfortable with his own money and that of his departed friend, Bland has nothing to look forward to or to look back on. He attempts to fill the void with Katy Gibb, a flaky young American occupying his neighbor's flat. She lives and breathes the many manifestations of New Age self-help and sees Bland as a source of financial support for her business aspirations, to spread the New Age gospel.
As with Look at Me, Brookner uses a character in Incidents in the Rue Laugier to write the story that becomes her novel. In this case, however, the character is peripheral to the story of the novel. Incidents in the Rue Laugier is the tale of a love triangle and its aftermath involving the narrator's mother, father, and another man reconstructed from a few entries in the mother's journals. The mother, Maud, a young French woman, visits her aunt in the country. There, she meets two young Englishmen, falls in love with one, David Tyler, and eventually marries the other, Edward Harrison. The couple is condemned to live, in the words of Library Journal contributor Wilda Williams, "thwarted, empty lives."Joan Thomas, writing in the Toronto Globe and Mail, found the disparity between the opening love triangle and the couple's ultimate resignation problematic. "Brookner's romantic premise is disastrous to the novel," she wrote. "Unable to deal with Maud and Edward's adult lives in an interesting way, Brookner has nothing to write about for the last half of the book." Still, Thomas conceded, "Brookner has been getting away with writing the same plot with variations for more than a decade because she is a beautiful stylist, with an almost nineteenth-century formality and a fine wit." And, because of Brookner's style and wit, "the reader turns pages compulsively for a dazzling read in which every sentence seems clairvoyant," noted a Publishers Weekly reviewer.
Brookner's 1996 novel, Altered States, examines the romantic career of Alan Sherwood, a thoroughly conventional middle-aged London solicitor. Flashbacks reveal Alan's many quashed hopes and unfulfilled erotic longings. The novel's dark musings struck a chord with many critics. Calling the novel "unnervingly morbid," Donna Seaman of Booklist wrote that Alan Sherwood's "altered states are all forms of loss and compromise, intrinsic aspects of life that Brookner analyzes with brilliant intensity and surprising suspense." This feeling of discomfort coupled with admiration for the author's words was echoed by other reviewers. "Though impressive for its craftsmanship,"observed Clare McHugh in People, "Altered States is unremittingly dark."A reviewer for Publishers Weekly found the narrative "alive with tension and heartbreak" while lamenting that Brookner's "view of female nature … seems essentially uncharitable and extreme."
Brookner's next novel, Visitors, covers similar emotional terrain—this time with a female narrator. Dorothea May is an elderly London widow, who, like many Brookner protagonists, sees her settled life disturbed by unforeseen events. This time it is a visit from her cousin's granddaughter and her wedding party, including a dissolute free spirit who prompts Dorothea to re-examine her own life choices. The very typicality of Visitors earned praise from many critics. "Brookner remains an exquisitely subtle observer of how manners bear the imprint of psyches," wrote a critic for Publishers Weekly. Brigitte Frase of the San Francisco Chronicle praised the book for its subdued prose. "Initially seduced by Brookner's urbane and intelligent language, one is coaxed gradually into an ever more disquieting emotional landscape," Frase wrote. Jacqueline Cary of the New York Times Book Review summarized Visitors as "the book Brookner has spent her life aiming toward."
Falling Slowly is the story of two sisters, Beatrice Sharpe, a pianist, and Miriam Sharpe, a translator, both of whom are experiencing a form of decline—Beatrice, in the form of an illness, and Miriam, in the form of loneliness. Miriam, once married but now divorced, is disillusioned about romantic endeavors; Beatrice, on the other hand, has always expected one day to meet the man of her dreams. "Like George Bland in Brookner's novel A Private View, or Dorothea May in Visitors, Miriam and Beatrice are ultimately torn between an idealized hankering for connection and, far more powerfully, an almost greedy complacency about their unruffled existence," summarized New York Times Book Review critic Claire Messud. "Women whose empty emotional lives are conducted behind a facade of stoic acceptance are Brookner's stock-in-trade," noted a Publishers Weekly critic. But here, in her delineation of the Sharpe sisters, Brookner "evokes an almost palpable atmosphere of resigned regret." Critics were largely positive in their assessment of Falling Slowly."Brookner's impeccable craftsmanship and worldly irony make each of her novels memorable, but here her heroines' passivity becomes exasperating," concluded the critic for Publishers Weekly. Donna Seaman in Booklist called the novel "a richly figured book," referring to Brookner as a "sagacious and elegant novelist." "The ghastly power of Brookner's novels," argued Messud, "arises from their trenchant accuracy, and in this regard Falling Slowly is a further testament to its author's gifts."
Undue Influence focuses on a younger woman, Claire Pitt, twenty-nine, highly intelligent and perceptive of the world she sees around her but blind to her own dysfunctions and vulnerability. Cristina Nehring in the San Francisco Chronicle described Claire as "the fruit of feminism triumphant: Independent, unsentimental and intellectually confident, she asserts her sexual needs squarely, refuses romantic mystifications, despises her mother's bond to an invalid husband and her friend's loyalty to a married man. 'She deserves better,' she intones." But Claire, we begin to see, is deceiving herself and those around her. In her affair with Martin Gibson (according to Colin Walters of the Washington Times, "a discerning, right-on portrait of the masochistic male)," Claire presents herself as invulnerable, distant, and in charge. Nehring continued, "If these assumptions are convenient for the men, they are encouraged by the women. Claire labors to present herself as a hardened vamp with a 'predator's instinct' and a disdain for 'rela-tionships.' It is she, not Martin—she tells us repeatedly—who 'controls' their affair. But it isn't long before we see that if Claire is masterminding anything, she is masterminding her own destruction." Intelligence, added Nehring, is the undoing rather than the saving of many of Brookner's protagonists.
Nehring maintained that Brookner's focus on similar characters and similar problems in her novels ultimately makes her writing "claustrophobic and repetitive." Ka-sia Boddy, however, in the London Daily Mail argued, "Anita Brookner's … novels have so much in common that, in some ways, to consider one is to consider them all. This is not to say that she retells the same story…. The arbitrary nature of human entanglements is a common thread." and Melinda Bargreen of the Seattle Times considered Anita Brookner "at her most sly and witty in this new novel." Bargreen concluded, "As always, Brookner's prose style gives us a felicitous turn of phrase in nearly every paragraph. And at the end, when Claire 'dispatch(es) naivete forever, consigning it to a prelapsarian time before doubt had set in,' you know she's on the road to self-knowledge." Walters commended the book: "Of Miss Brookner's novels that I've read, this one may have given the most pleasure." Interesting is the difference between those who find humor and those who find no humor in Brookner's work. For instance, a Christian Science Monitor reviewer described "some of the novel's most darkly comic moments," whereas Robert Allen Papinchak in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel called this a "relentlessly somber … novel."
The protagonist of The Next Big Thing is a man, Julius Herz, who is about to retire from an unfulfilling job at age seventy-three. The question is whether he will take up the remainder of his life with vigor and an adventurous spirit or whether it is only death that will be "the next big thing." Sara Maitland in the Spectator had equivocal feelings about Brookner's focus: "One of the central themes of Brookner's novels has been 'resigna-tion': Is it possible? Is it virtuous? Is it desirable? What are its compensations? What are the rewards and costs of realism and good behaviour?… My problem with Brookner's novels has always been that I feel that resignation is a pseudo-virtue, a vile diminishment preached to the already marginalized." Julius, wrote Maitland, "has endured a thin life; thinner, he rightly feels, than he deserved…. What should he do now? How should he fill in the years that will intervene between now and his death? Should he accept that this is all he is going to get, should he practise resignation? Or should he make one last effort to make life deliver its fruit?"
Having warned that Brookner is getting emotionally no easier to read, Ron Charles of the Christian Science Monitor found, "The reasons to pay attention to Anita Brookner grow no less compelling. First, she's one of the great English stylists, an artist of such extraordinary precision that her novels serve as an antidote to the overwritten tomes from so many contemporary writers. Second, in a literary marketplace excited by the bizarre, she remains committed to the mundane. No, she can't tell us about a hermaphrodite whose grandparents were siblings—for advice in that situation you must go to Jeffrey Eugenides's widely praised Middlesex,—but if you're considering the somewhat more common predicament of getting older, Brookner is as wise a guide as you'll find." Brookner presents Julius as a man who has lost himself in serving others, wrote Charles, and the problem considered is whether, now freed from financial worry and from work, he can make something more exciting of his last years. "A chorus of acquaintances offers advice: His cordial ex-wife admonishes him to cheer up, his lawyer suggests travel, his distractingly beautiful neighbor tells him to stop staring. But none of these courses can solve the problem of learning how to live with an abundance of unaccustomed freedom. 'Keeping one's dignity,' he admits, 'is a lonely business. And how one longs to let it go'." As Charles observed, Julius is in danger of already regarding himself as "posthumous," and the reviewer concluded, "This is bitter medicine for sure, but Brookner draws a portrait of despair so perfectly that it might serve a homeopathic purpose for anyone in or slipping toward 'a pale simulacrum of life.' Only a writer of her astonishing wit and insight could get us to swallow it."
Observer contributor Adam Mars-Jones, however, found the thinness of descriptive prose and action in the novel a problem. "In a more dynamic novel, the absence of observation wouldn't matter, but here, in a narrative virtually denuded of incident (Herz makes modest perambulations and rambling peregrinations, he remembers, he surmises, he envisages), the thinness of texture is damaging." Rather than seeing Julius Herz as a figure of pathos, as Charles did, Mars-Jones observed, "Herz, wanting company without liking people, sees himself as a stoic, when, in fact, he floats in an admittedly dilute solution of self-pity from the first page to the last. The problem with the psychology on offer is not that it's negative, but that it's dull," concluding, "Brookner once remarked, quoting Freud, that art was a way of turning strong feelings into weak ones. Judge her on that basis, and her success is remarkable. Every trace of urgency has been effaced."
Brookner continues with The Rules of Engagement, which follows the lives of two women friends, Elizabeth and Betsy, both born in 1948 and who go at life in very different ways. Elizabeth chooses safety, marrying a kind man much older than herself. Betsy falls in love with a Parisian revolutionary and stays in Paris. The crossing of the two friends' lives thereafter throws a light on the possibilities offered by such choices and such views on the world—Elizabeth's pragmatic and Betsy's romantic. The Spectator's Anne Chisholm noted, "It is, perhaps, a measure of Brookner's great gifts as a writer and her achievement in establishing, over twenty-two novels in thirty years, such a powerful message about the plight of women today that occasionally even her admirers want to fight back…. All one can say, perhaps, is that some are and that Anita Brookner knows and understands them…. There is beauty as well as courage in Brookner's new book."
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