Anita Brookner (born 1928), a British art historian specializing in 18th-and 19th-century painting, was the first woman to hold the rank of Slade Professor at Cambridge University (1967-68). Brookner is also a successful author, publishing several scholarly works, as well as seventeen novels. Her novel, Hotel du Lac (1984) won the Booker Prize, England's highest award for fiction.
Anita Brookner was born on July 16, 1928, in London, England. Her mother was a former professional singer and her father was a Polish emigré businessman. Brookner once admitted that her family's Jewish roots often made her feel like an outsider in her native land, that she could not be English no matter how she tried. "I have never learned the custom of the country. We were aliens … tribal. I doubt that you ever get away from the people before you."
After earning her B.A. from King's College, University of London, and her Ph.D. in art history at the Courtauld Institute of Art in London, Brookner went on to develop a successful career as lecturer and teacher of eighteenth and nineteenth century French art and culture. She was an instructor at the University of Reading (1959-64), Lecturer in Art History at Courtauld, and the first woman to achieve the prestigious title of Slade Professor at Cambridge University (1967-68).
Brookner wrote several scholarly books including Watteau (1968), The Genius of the Future: Studies in French Art Criticism (1971), Greuze: The Rise and Fall of an Eighteenth Century Phenomenon (1972), and Jacques-Louis David (1980). Although Brookner's works were generally well-received by academia, not all scholars agreed on the academic merits of her research. Dr. Graham Smith, retired professor and vice-principal of Wulfrun College (Wolver-hampton, England), wrote the following for Wulfrun's American Studies Resource Guide (1996). "Some very poor history in this [Jacques-Louis David] but it's an accessible biography and if treated with caution does have some useful material on the Revolution's pageant master. Take no notice of anything she says on the Revolution as a whole."
A general malaise of spirit coupled with the boredom of a summer vacation prompted Brookner to write her first novel, A Start in Life (1981). During an interview for The Paris Review (Fall, 1987), Shusha Guppy quoted Brookner as saying, "My life seemed to be drifting in predictable channels and I wanted to know how I deserved such a fate. I thought if I could write about it I would be able to impose some structure on my experience."
Throughout her books, several parallels clearly exist between Brookner and her protagonists, who are almost always highly intellectual, emotionally reserved women alienated from the mainstream of life. Brookner herself made the comment, "If my novels contain a certain amount of grief, it is to do with my not being what I would wish to be … more popular … socially more graceful …. " This struggle to find a balance between inner acceptance and social acceptance is reflected in the strongly female themes that dominate Brookner's novels.
Brookner's second novel, The Debut (1981), received praise for perceptive character development and the clever intermingling of narrative and literary background. The protagonist, Ruth Weiss, a specialist in French literature, struggles to break free from the moral obligations that restrict her life. Weiss, hoping to emulate Balzac's female protagonist, Eugenie Grandet, goes to Paris to study. But Weiss' dream of being rescued by a hero fails. Weiss resigns herself to fate and returns to London to care for her querulous, aging parents.
Kitty Maule, protagonist in Providence (1984), is another intelligent woman disillusioned by the discrepancies between literature and reality. When Maule's affair with a colleague fails to earn his love, her yearnings for love and social acceptance into the British social milieu which he represents remain unfulfilled.
In Hotel du Lac (1984) Brookner uses melancholy wit, sharp observations, and ironically misdirected passions to relate another quiet victory of a lonely woman over emotional predators. The novel won England's prestigious Booker Prize, the highest honor bestowed on books of fiction.
The main character of Hotel du Lac is middle-aged Edith Hope, best-selling author of romance novels. She is an industrious woman with literary sensibilities, trapped in doomed romantic yearnings. Single and financially independent, Hope leads a wellordered life that includes a socially desirable but boring fiance, whom she mocks; monthly trysts with her married love; and regular lunches with her best friend. Hope's deliberate avoidance of her own wedding transgresses the firm but unwritten conventions of her society. She becomes a social and emotional outcast, exiled to the secluded Hotel du Lac.
Hope views the other women residing at the hotel as social misfits. When the only male guest at the hotel, Mr. Neville, accuses Hope of living a wretched life because she is single, her sense of self-worth is further diminished. She is tempted by the thought that if she accepts a marriage of convenience with Neville she will regain her position in society.
Although Hope rejects his proposal, Neville's philosophy towards life causes Hope to reevaluate her own understanding of femininity, sex, and motherhood. By the end of the novel, Hope has come to a new acceptance of what she wants from life and returns to London and her married lover.
In Family and Friends (1985), the focus is not on a solitary woman but on a large Jewish-European family. Brookner explores the familial bonds of dependence that create a network of enduring and complex emotional relationships. Her prose style is tightly controlled and intelligent.
A Misalliance (1986) returns to familiar Brookner territory, the world of a professionally acclaimed woman who views herself as a failure. In Brookner's earlier novels, literature provided the novel's witty counterpoint. In A Misalliance Brookner calls upon her own world of art history to enrich the narrative.
Other Brookner novels include Look At Me (1983), A Friend From England (1987), Latecomers (1988), Lewis Percy (1989), Brief Lives (1990), A Closed Eye (1991), Fraud (1992), Dolly (1993), A Family Romance (1994), A Private View (1994), and Incidents in the Rue Laugier (1996).
Brookner's observant stories about British society have been compared to the works of Henry James and Jane Austen, while the wry isolation and secretive passions of her heroines are reminiscent of stories written by the Emily and Charlotte Brontë.
Reviews by Adam Mans-Jones (January 31, 1985), D.J. Enright (December 5, 1985), and Rosemary Dinnage (June 1, 1989) in New York Review of Books provide detailed critiques of several Brookner's novels. John Updike reviews of Latecomers in The New Yorker (May 1, 1989). Interviews with Brookner have appeared in Publishers Weekly (September 6, 1985), Saturday Review ("Self-Reflecting," May/June 1985), and The Paris Review (Fall, 1987). □
"Anita Brookner." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (January 15, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/anita-brookner
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Anita Brookner, 1928–, English writer and art critic. After establishing an academic career at London's Courtauld Institute of Art and becoming the first woman appointed (1968) Slade Professor of Art at Cambridge, she began writing fiction in 1980, producing approximately one book a year of elegantly restrained prose. Her quiet, often bleak novels usually concern lonely, meek, and genteel middle-aged women (and occasionally men), unlucky in love and yearning for it, but largely unable to establish or maintain relationships with those around them. Brookner's works include Look at Me (1983), Hotel du Lac (1984; Booker Prize), Latecomers (1988), Fraud (1992), Undue Influence (1999), and Strangers (2009). Her nonfiction work Romanticism and Its Discontents (2000) is an analysis of French Romanticism.
"Brookner, Anita." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. (January 15, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/brookner-anita
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Nationality: British. Born: London, 16 July 1928. Education: James Allen's Girls' School; King's College, University of London; Courtauld Institute of Art, London, Ph.D. in art history. Career: Visiting lecturer, University of Reading, Berkshire, 1959-64; lecturer, 1964, and reader, 1977-88, Courtauld Institute of Art; Slade Professor, Cambridge University, 1967-68. Fellow, New Hall, Cambridge; fellow, King's College, 1990. Awards: Booker prize, 1984. C.B.E. (Commander, Order of the British Empire), 1990. Address: 68 Elm Park Gardens, London SW10 9PB, England.
A Start in Life. London, Cape, 1981; as The Debut, New York, LindenPress, 1981.
Providence. London, Cape, 1982; New York, Pantheon, 1984.
Look at Me. London, Cape, and New York, Pantheon, 1983.
Hotel du Lac. London, Cape, 1984; New York, Pantheon, 1985.
Family and Friends. London, Cape, and New York, Pantheon, 1985.
A Misalliance. London, Cape, 1986; as The Misalliance, New York, Pantheon, 1987.
A Friend from England. London, Cape, 1987; New York, Pantheon, 1988.
Latecomers. London, Cape, 1988; New York, Pantheon, 1989.
Lewis Percy. London, Cape, 1989; New York, Pantheon, 1990.
Brief Lives. London, Cape, 1990; New York, Random House, 1991.
A Closed Eye. London, Cape, 1991; New York, Random House, 1991.
Fraud. New York, Vintage Books, 1994.
Dolly. Thorndike, Maine, G.K. Hall, 1994.
A Private View. New York, Random House, 1994.
Incidents in the Rue Laugier. New York, Random House, 1996.
Altered States. New York, Random House, 1996.
Visitors. London, Jonathan Cape, 1997.
Falling Slowly. New York, Random House, 1999.
Undue Influence. New York, Random House, 2000.
Watteau. London, Hamlyn, 1968.
The Genius of the Future: Studies in French Art Criticism: Diderot, Stendahl, Baudelaire, Zola, the Brothers Goncourt, Huysmans. London, Phaidon Press, 1971; Ithaca, New York, Cornell University Press, 1988.
Greuze: The Rise and Fall of an Eighteenth-Century Phenomenon. London, Elek, and Greenwich, Connecticut, New York Graphic Society, 1972.
Jacques-Louis David. London, Chatto and Windus, 1980; New York, Harper, 1981; revised edition, Chatto and Windus, 1986; New York, Thames and Hudson, 1987.
Soundings (essays). London, Harvill Press, 1998.
Romanticism and its Discontents. New York, Farrar, Straus andGiroux, 2000.
Editor, The Stories of Edith Wharton. London, Simon and Schuster, 2 vols., 1988-89.
Translator, Utrillo. London, Oldbourne Press, 1960.
Translator, The Fauves. London, Oldbourne Press, 1962.
Translator, Gauguin. London, Oldbourne Press, 1963.*
Often compared to Jane Austen, Henry James, and Edith Wharton, sometimes simultaneously, Anita Brookner's brief, exquisitely wrought novels portray lonely, ordinary people, usually women, passively enduring somber ordinary lives in a bleak, gray London, skillfully delineated through reference to recognizable street names and shops. In her autobiographical first novel, A Start in Life, Brookner sets a characteristic theme and tone with another characteristic, references to literature and painting: "'About suffering they were never wrong, the Old Masters,' said Auden. But they were. Frequently. Death was usually heroic, old age serene and wise. And of course, the element of time, that was what was missing." In Brookner's novels, the present stretches on and on into an uncharted future, days need filling up, while the past only informs when it is too late. With little choice, Brookner's characters must bravely "soldier on."
Brookner's characters are immediately recognizable. As Brookner notes, she begins with an "idea of the main character and how the story ends. Then, I work toward that end." Her typical protagonists, female or male, allow cultural and familial attitudes and pressures to shape their lives, like Dr. Ruth Weiss in A Start in Life, whose life has been "ruined by literature." Brookner protagonists wear well-tailored clothes, live in well-furnished apartments, usually inherited from a parent dutifully nursed through a final illness, and vacation in France. Left to "ponder the careers of Anna Karenina and Emma Bovary" but "emulate" Little Dorrit, the women view life as offering limited choices, one being between marriage and spinsterhood. The unfulfilled young women of the early novels, crave the affection and love denied by their families, whose portraits are presented through the protagonists' memories and self-reflection. Yearning for the stuff of romantic novels, such as those written by Edith of the award-winning Hotel du Lac, the young women suffer in demeaning relationships, but although intelligent, lack the inner resources to take control of their lives. In sharp contrast, in Lewis Percy, the eponymous protagonist of Brookner's ninth novel and a student of 19th-century French fiction, escapes his dependency on his mother as well as a loveless marriage when he runs off to America with his best friend's eccentric sister.
The women in Hotel du Lac and A Friend from England also shed impossible relationships, from married men, but are not "rewarded" with happy endings. Edith analyzes the history of her predicament through letters never sent to her lover David; Rachel comes to understand that she will gamely "plough on" through middle age, her interior monologues never vocalized or shared.
Brookner's middle novels, A Misalliance and Brief Lives compound the meaninglessness of women's existence by exploring the present predicaments of older women through a retrospective on their past. This technique proves an excellent vehicle for Brookner's preoccupation with self-betrayal, the duplicity of others, and the betrayals of time. The defeats of time and the painful survival of destroyed illusions are portrayed in two novels best described as family chronicles: Family and Friends and Latecomers. The former brilliantly traces the contrasting stories of the members of the Dorn family by reading and projecting from a series of wedding photographs. Latecomers, a study of survivor-guilt, reviews the lives of the families of two Jewish friends—the melancholy Fibich and the epicurean Hartmann—through an emotional crisis in which Fibich comes to terms with his own history. These melancholy novels portray characters who barely survive, but with a modicum honor.
In both A Closed Eye and Fraud, however, Brookner suggests that people do not have to settle for a solitary, lonely life. In novels developed through similar structural techniques, dutiful daughters break the Brookner pattern. In A Closed Eye, although timid Harriet submits to an arranged marriage with well-to-do, divorced Freddie Lytton, she is partially fulfilled in motherhood, a new theme for Brookner, by the birth of her beautiful daughter Imogen, who, however, soon grows into an unspeakably selfish girl. Only when Harriet meets Jack, philanderer husband of Tessa, her best friend, does Harriet experience something of a sexual awakening, which, being a Brookner woman, she cannot act upon, despite their single shared kiss and her erotic dreams. Developed through retrospect, when the novel opens, Imogen is dead in an improbable car crash, Tessa is dead from cancer, and Harriet has dutifully accompanied Freddie to Swiss health spas. Liberated by his death, 53-year-old Harriet does not return home as would most defeated Brookner heroines. Instead she writes the letter which opens the novel and invites Lizzie, Tessa's daughter whom she partially raised, to her European villa to join her and her new male friend, thus opening the way to self understanding.
Brookner relies on the same circular technique in Fraud, which also develops the theme of mothers and daughters, but here from the daughter's point of view. Like a detective story, the novel opens with the report that 50-year-old Anna Durrant has gone missing; cleverly, the police inquiries spark the narrative. The reflections of Anna's few acquaintances introduce this obedient spinster daughter, who knows she lived in "a pleasant collaboration of unrealities," dominated by her mother. Thus, we are prepared to learn of Anna's self-rescue after her mother's death; planning her disappearance, she "refashions" herself rather than allowing others to and begins a career designing clothing for "women like myself." At novel's end, a chance encounter in Paris solves her mysterious disappearance and reveals a stronger Anna capable of inspiring another woman to resolutely follow an independent path and break from a married man.
Dolly, Brookner's thirteenth novel, brings the European to London in a vivacious aunt "singing and dancing" her way through life. Dolly collides with and, then, is eventually dependent upon, narrator Jane Manning, her young niece, whose keen observations delineate her parents' close, yet delicate, marriage and deaths, and, more importantly, reveal widowed Dolly's fraudulent gaiety. The power shifts when Jane reluctantly inherits the family money, but so does Jane's now benevolent understanding of her aunt's life. Young Jane finds contentment and success as a children's author while she installs her defeated, aging aunt in a much desired flat.
Despite these less melancholy endings, these new Brookner women still take long walks on melancholy Sunday evenings, drink bottomless cups of tea, and manage their days with little tricks of empty activity. Maud Gonthier in Incidents in the Rue Langier reads, sighs, and retires early; like Dolly, she too is a displaced French woman. Her daughter creates an unreliable, perhaps wishful, biography for her mother after she discovers a mysterious coded diary and silk kimono in Maud's belongings. The daughter's narrative spins a passionate romance-novel affair with the dashing, wealthy David Tyler in Paris. Almost in penance, Maud accepts marriage with Tyler's acquaintance, the staid, British used bookseller, Edward; thus an explanation for the marriage of the narrator's parents. Maud's male counterpart is Alan Sherwood, narrator of Altered States who also yearns for a former lover in Paris, sensual, heartless Sarah, while married to sexless Angela. Both novels examine the consequences of inopportune marriages from male and female points of view. Brookner also explores male-female relationships exacerbated this time by generational and cultural differences in her next paired novels which present the usual finely crafted portraits of the effects of loneliness.
Youth and age collide when young strangers interrupt the patterned, solitary well-to-do lives of retired bachelor George Bland in A Private View and widowed, 70-year-old Dorothea May in Visitors. Aware of their age, both meticulously prepare themselves for the day in front of the mirror and by novel's end both are forced to a new understanding of their futures. Bland, aptly named, succumbs to Katy Gibb (named for the American secretarial school?), a twenty-something intruder who sweet-talks her way into the neighboring apartment and eventually cons Bland into donating a large sum to help her set up a business based on New Age stress workshops; Katy talks about "being in the moment" or feeling "a lot of negativity." Enthralled, George contemplates marriage seeing Katy as a chance to escape a life not lived; rejected and exhausted, after an ongoing interior monologue of self scrutiny, he settles for a shift in his years' long companionship with Louise. Over the telephone, he invites Louise on a vacation trip.
Coping with ill health and increasing anxiety attacks, Dorothea May's civilized world also shifts under self-scrutiny when she reluctantly responds to family duty by opening the room where her husband Henry died for Steven Best, who has accompanied her sister-in-law's granddaughter Ann, a homeopathic therapist, and David, a crusading evangelical sports teacher, to London for their sudden wedding. The novel becomes a comedy of contrasts—old, proper British versus young, brash American and family secrets keep tumbling out. Astonished at herself, Dorothea offers crucial assistance in dealing with the recalcitrant bride and succumbs to Steven's presence. She shops and busies herself with his comfort. Although Steven disappoints her with his thoughtlessness, she misses him when the trio leaves for Paris. Her revelation is that the unknown future must be "an enterprise in which help must be solicited and offered." Like George, she cautiously reaches out over the telephone to her over-wrought sister-in-law.
Small items and techniques reappear in subsequent Brookner novels, each time usually more complete. In Hotel du Lac, Edith does not mail her letters; in A Closed Eye, Harriet's mailed letter leads to self-knowledge. A vague New Age business in A Private View is actually the bride Anna's occupation in Visitors. George Bland switches off the incomplete radio shipping forecast to take Louise's phone call, but Falling Slowly takes its title from the shipping bulletin's last words; Edith's romance novels also reappear or are inverted by Brookner's novels themselves. Brookner's eighteenth novel explores the now familiar marginalized lives of two sisters: Miriam, a translator of French, who spends half her day in the London library and the other half fretting over life's minutia and her evaporating love life; and Beatrice, an accompanist forced into retirement, who flutters about and reads romance novels. A typical Brookner figure, Miriam, once married for five years, slides into an affair with a married man for whom she yearns after he simply disappears. Unable to commit to the suitable Tom, Miriam retreats to care for her ailing sister Beatrice; at their deaths, Miriam, left alone in a self-inflicted, circumscribed emotionless life, tells her former husband when he accuses her of reading too much, "I'm better off alone … there were no happy endings." Seeking early morning reassurance, she listens to the shipping forecast sipping a cup of tea knowing that the high moments of life she and Beatrice anticipated will never come.
Spinster sisters reappear in Undue Influence as Muriel and Harriet St. John, elderly owners of a secondhand bookshop inherited from their father. Dutifully devoted to his memory, they employ attractive, well-dressed, 29-year-old Claire Pitt to edit his numbingly dull writings. Claire, alone after caring for her mother, who, in turn, had tended Claire's ailing father, still spins elaborate fantasies and now fantasizes an unattainable marriage with handsome, shallow Martin Gibson, a bookstore patron. Her one friend, Wiggy, sits by the phone waiting for a phone call from her married lover. Although far more modern than the octogenarian St. John spinsters, Claire and Wiggy are destined to become them, for with this nineteenth novel, nothing has changed in Brookner territory. In an effort to occupy her time, Claire endlessly cleans her inherited apartment, takes long walks in London parks, reads, fantasizes, and has anonymous sexual encounters during vacations in France. Without any lasting relationships, Claire's future holds the same glum promise of a drab, controlled life. She will courageously slip into middle age as Brookner slowly closes yet another analysis of unfulfilled longing.
—Lyn Pykett, updated by
Judith C. Kohl
"Brookner, Anita." Contemporary Novelists. . Encyclopedia.com. (January 15, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/brookner-anita
"Brookner, Anita." Contemporary Novelists. . Retrieved January 15, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/brookner-anita
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BROOKNER, ANITA (1928– ), writer and art historian. Brookner was born in London, England, into a family of Polish origin. She was educated at the University of London and at the Courtauld Institute in London. In her professional life, her achievements have been in the areas of both art history and English literature. She was a visiting lecturer at the University of Reading from 1958 to 1964 and shortly thereafter became a lecturer in art history at the Courtauld Institute. From 1967 to 1968 she was Slade Professor at Cambridge University, the first woman to hold that position. She is considered an international authority on 18th- and 19th-century painting. Her academic works include The Genius of the Future: Studies in French Art Criticism (1971) and Greuze: The Rise and Fall of an Eighteenth-Century Phenomenon (1972).
In the field of literature, Anita Brookner has written literary reviews for the Times Literary Supplement, Observer, London Review of Books, and the Times (London). However, she is best known for her novels. She wrote A Start in Life (1981; U.S. title The Debut), Providence (1982), Look at Me (1983), Hotel du Lac (1984) for which she was awarded the Booker Prize of 1984, Family and Friends (1985), and Fraud (1992). She continued to write prolifically, publishing 11 books in the period between 1995 and 2005, including Altered States (1995), Bay of Angels (2001), and Leaving Home (2005)
Brookner's literary style very much reflects her background in art. She writes in an elegantly formal, highly structured prose reminiscent of the staid, carefully composed character studies found in 18th- and 19th-century portraits of individuals. With the exception of Family and Friends her novels are, in fact, verbal portraits of a single main character.
Brookner's novels concern the relationships between men and women in modern society. She depicts men as the activists and catalysts in the world, while women, though competent and accomplished, are presented as meek, lonely objects waiting for men to confer love upon them to deliver them from their prudent, patient, long-suffering lives.
H. May (ed.), Contemporary Authors, 114, 77–78; S. Hall (ed.), Contemporary Literary Criticism, Yearbook 34, (1984), 136. add. bibliography: C. Alexander Malcolm, Understanding Anita Brookner (2001); G. Soule, Four British Women Writers … An Annotated … Bibliography (1998).
"Brookner, Anita." Encyclopaedia Judaica. . Encyclopedia.com. (January 15, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/religion/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/brookner-anita
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BORN: 1928, London, England
GENRE: Nonfiction, fiction
The Debut (1981)
Hotel du Lac (1984)
Family and Friends (1985)
Altered States (1997)
Anita Brookner began writing novels at the age of fifty-three after establishing herself as a respected art historian. Since then, she has been a prolific writer, averaging a book a year. Although some critics have noted her tendency to return to the same themes time and again, Brookner has garnered significant critical praise for her novels, winning the prestigious Booker Prize in 1984.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Childhood in Suburban London Brookner was the only child of middle-class, socialist, nonreligious Jewish parents. She was born and grew up in Herne Hill, an upscale suburb of south London. Her birth date is July 16, 1928, although when she started to write she deducted ten years from her age until a friend pointed out the discrepancy in the London Times. Brookner's mother, Maude Schiska, was a professional singer who gave up her career to marry Brookner's father, Newson Bruckner. Brookner remembers her childhood as both crowded and lonely. Living in a suburban villa with her grandmother, parents, bachelor uncle, and many servants, she remembers her parents as silent and unhappy. In the 1930s and during World War II, the household was also filled with Jewish refugees who had fled Nazi Germany's persecution and imprisonment of Jews. During the war, the Nazis killed roughly 6 million Jews through exposure to the cold, starvation, and execution. The tragic situation of Jews in Europe permeated Brook-ner's childhood and adolescence.
Early on, Brookner showed great academic promise. After attending a local primary school and James Allen's Girls” School in Dulwich, she studied history as an undergraduate at King's College, London, and then completed a doctorate in art history at the distinguished Courtauld Institute of Art in London, where its director, the magisterial art historian and spy, Anthony Blunt, both encouraged her as her teacher and used her as an unknowing stooge in his covert operations (a fact of which Brookner was not aware until the publication of Peter Wright's book Spycatcher in 1987).
Art and the Turn Toward Fiction After studying the art of Jean-Baptiste Greuze in Paris on a French government scholarship, Brookner was launched on her first distinguished career as an art historian. Brookner's area of specialization is late-eighteenth-century and early-nineteenth-century French art, and her books on the subject are not only respected but composed with the kind of narrative drive that in retrospect merges seam-lessly with her talent as a novelist.
By 1980, Brookner had earned considerable recognition as an art historian, but she turned to fiction as a form of escape. In a 1989 interview with Olga Kenyon, Brookner summed up her life and the mental state that turned her toward fiction at the age of fifty-three. “Mine was a dreary Victorian story: I nursed my parents till they died. I write out of a sense of powerlessness and injustice, because I felt invisible and passive.”
A Prodigious Output Brookner wrote her first novel, A Start in Life (published in the United States as The Debut), during her summer vacation. “It was most undramatic,” she told Amanda Smith in 1985.
Nothing seemed to be happening and I could have got very sorry for myself and miserable…and I'd always got such nourishment from fiction. I wondered—it just occurred to me to see whether I could do it. I didn't think I could. I just wrote a page, the first page, and nobody seemed to think it was wrong…. So I wrote another page, and another, and at the end of the summer I had a story. That's all I wanted to do—tell a story.
The influential editor Liz Calder accepted the novel for Jonathan Cape.
A Start in Life was followed by two more novels in 1982 and 1983, establishing Brookner's reputation for insightful and stylistic prose. This reputation was cemented by her fourth book, Hotel du Lac, which won the prestigious Booker Prize in 1984. Not one to rest on her laurels, Brookner has continued to publish roughly a novel a year for over twenty-five years.
Despite her success in two highly public careers, Brookner's has been a quiet, fastidious life. She is not part of the social scene of literary London. For many years she has lived in the same small apartment in Chelsea in London, and her needs have been simple: no word processor, answering machine, microwave, cellular telephone, or car.
Works in Literary Context
With the appearance of her first novel in 1981, Anita Brookner immediately secured a reputation as one of the finest stylists among contemporary writers of fiction in Britain. After a late start as a novelist, Brookner has proved to be a prolific source of the morally engaged novel of consciousness and of exquisite sensibility. Equally admired and criticized for her attention to the themes of stoicism, loneliness, and melancholy, which beset her contemporary, genteel characters, Brookner's voice is instantly recognizable as the most recent contributor to a tradition of distinguished British female writers that includes Jane Austen, Elizabeth Bowen, Rosamond Lehmann, Elizabeth Taylor, and Barbara Pym.
Brookner's work both borrows from and differs from that of the writers she admires. Like Charles Dickens (and despite the limitations of her range), she is a chronicler of London life. Like Henry James, she is an intense moralist, examining the dilemmas of the upper class. Like Marcel Proust, she has a deep interest in psychological obsession and the failure of desire. Brookner has a compelling interest in the individual and the family, in romance, and in the ways that art structures expectations. She also writes in a thoughtful and sometimes combative dialogue, using the cruder versions of the feminism of her day, with the topic of the life of the solitary, independent, intelligent woman being one of the hallmarks of her fiction.
Autobiography While Brookner's novels have varied in plot and subject, many critics have pointed out that much of her fiction is autobiographical to some extent. Her heroines, such as Dr. Ruth Weiss from A Start in Life or Kitty Maule from Providence, are intelligent, solitary women who must make sense of the connections, and lack of connections, with the people around them. Themes of loneliness, cultural and social isolation, and complex moral dilemmas—issues with which Brookner herself has had to deal—permeate her work.
Works in Critical Context
Acknowledged as one of the most successful prose stylists of twentieth-century British fiction, Anita Brookner has attracted both the rabid devotion and critical scrutiny of a major author. She established a reputation for consistent and insightful fiction with her first three novels and then won the Booker Prize for fiction in 1984 for Hotel du Lac.
Hotel du Lac John Gross of the New York Times, who considers Brookner “one of the finest novelists of her generation,” calls 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, says 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 unmiti-gated tragedy.”
With the award of the Booker Prize for Hotel du Lac, Brookner received accolades that assured her of a place among the ranks of the best contemporary writers of British fiction. Many critics and readers regard it as Brookner's best novel to date. However, along with a greater readership, the novel also crystallized criticism of Brookner's writing, as she was now seen as an important enough writer to attack. For example, Adam Mars-Jones, writing in the New York Review of Books, stresses the “masochism” of Brookner's view of romance and comments that “Hotel du Lac works so hard at the limpness of its heroine that it has a perversely bracing effect.” The novel, in his view, “is divided between narcissism and self-mortification, between wallowing and astringency.”
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Brookner's famous contemporaries include:
Nora Ephron (1941–): American film director, producer, screenwriter, and novelist best known for her romantic comedies. She is a triple nominee for the Academy Award for Original Screenplay.
Anne Tyler (1941–): American novelist best known for winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1989 for her novel Breathing Lessons. Tyler was a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 1986 and National Book Critics Circle Award winner in 1985.
Charles, Prince of Wales (1948–): The eldest son of Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, Charles is heir apparent to the thrones of sixteen sovereign states known as the Commonwealth realms. He was married to Diana of Wales from 1981 to 1996.
Iris Murdoch (1919–1999): Irish novelist and Booker Prize winner known for such novels as Under the Net (1954).
Chinua Achebe (1930–): Nigerian novelist and poet most famous for his first novel Things Fall Apart (1958).
From this time onward, the annual publication of one of Brookner's novels automatically attracted reviews, commentary, and interviews. Noting, too, her interest in the topic of humiliation and failure, she said that in England her books were criticized for being depressing. She attributed this to her “semi-outsider” position in England and her affinity with French life. While some critics fault the lack of thematic variety in her works, many regard Brookner's elegant prose and detailed descriptions of place, her use of literary devices common to eighteenth- and nineteenth-century French literature, and her confessional tone as features that elevate her fiction above the romance genre.
Responses to Literature
- Brookner has received both praise and criticism for her portrayal of women. Choose one of Brookner's female central characters and examine her as a role model for women. What messages does that character send? Would you want to live that life?
- Brookner was a successful art historian before she became a novelist. Research other writers who had prior careers and then turned to writing later in life. How does their previous work experience affect their writing careers, overriding themes, and literary techniques?
- Brookner claimed that Henry James and Charles Dickens were the two novelists who influenced her the most. Research either one and look for signs of influence in Brookner's work.
- Hotel du Lac won the prestigious Booker Prize in 1984. Who were the other finalists, and why was it a controversial year for this prize?
- Brookner has been much admired as a prose stylist. Choose one passage from her novels that is particularly well written and examine it for literary techniques. Which of these techniques do you think she employed consciously and which intuitively?
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
Brookner's Booker Prize–winning Hotel du Lac focuses on an Englishwoman who travels to Geneva to rethink her life. Other works about foreigners in Geneva include:
Daisy Miller (1878), a novella by Henry James. The ebullient young American girl, Daisy Miller, travels to Switzerland and Italy and falls victim to her own flighty nature in this oft-studied short work by James.
Doctor Fischer of Geneva or The Bomb Party (1980), a novel by Graham Greene. This somewhat bleak novel centers on a rich Englishman living in Geneva who gives dinner parties in which he humiliates his guests.
Frankenstein (1818), a novel by Mary Shelley. Geneva is the hometown of the original mad scientist Victor Frankenstein, and much of the action in the novel takes place in and around Switzerland.
Hosmer, Robert, Jr. “Paradigm and Passage: The Fiction of Anita Brookner.” In Contemporary British Women Writers. Ed. Robert Hosmer Jr. London: Macmillan, 1993.
Kenyon, Olga. “Anita Brookner.” In Women Writers Talk: Interviews with 10 Women Writers. Ed. Olga Keny. Oxford: Lennard, 1989.
Sadler, Lynn Veach. Anita Brookner. Boston: Twayne, 1990.
Fisher-Wirth, Anne. “Hunger Art: The Novels of Anita Brookner.” Twentieth Century Literature 41 (Spring 1995).
Guppy, Shusha. “The Art of Fiction XCVIII: AnitaBrookner.” Paris Review (Fall 1987).
Mars-Jones, Adam. “Women Beware Women.” New York Times Review of Books (January 1985).
Morrison, Blake. “A Game of Solitaire.” Independent on Sunday (June 1994).
Smith, Amanda. “Anita Brookner.” Publishers Weekly 228(September 1985).
Landow, George. The Victorian Web (Thomas Carlyle). Accessed February 28, 2008, from http://www.victorianweb.org/authors/carlyle/index.html. Last updated in 2007.
Lewis, Jone Johnson, ed. The Transcendentalists (Thomas Carlyle). Accessed March 1, 2008, from http://www.transcendentalists.com/thomas_carlyle.htm. Last updated in March 2008.
"Brookner, Anita." Gale Contextual Encyclopedia of World Literature. . Encyclopedia.com. (January 15, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/arts/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/brookner-anita
"Brookner, Anita." Gale Contextual Encyclopedia of World Literature. . Retrieved January 15, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/arts/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/brookner-anita
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BROOKNER, Anita. British, b. 1928. Genres: Novels, Novellas/Short stories, Art/Art history. Career: University of Reading, lecturer, 1959-64; Cambridge University, Slade Professor, 1967-68; Courtauld Institute of Art, London, lecturer, 1964-77, reader, 1977-87. Publications: ART HISTORY & CRITICISM: J.A. Dominique Ingres, 1965; Watteau, 1968; The Genius of the Future, 1971; Greuze, 1972; Jacques-Louis David: A Personal Interpretation, 1974, rev. ed., 1987; Jacques-Louis David, 1980, rev. ed., 1987; Soundings, 1997; Romanticism and Its Discontents, 2000. NOVELS: A Start in Life (in US as The Debut), 1981; Providence, 1982; Look at Me, 1983; Hotel du Lac, 1984 (Booker Prize); Family and Friends, 1985; A Misalliance, 1986, in US as The Misalliance, 1987; A Friend from England, 1987; Latecomers, 1988; Lewis Percy, 1989; Brief Lives, 1990; A Closed Eye, 1991; Fraud, 1992; A Family Romance (in US as Dolly), 1993; A Private View, 1994; Incidents in the Rue Laugier, 1996; Altered States, 1997; Visitors, 1998; Falling Slowly, 1998; Undue Influence, 2000; The Bay of Angels, 2001; The Next Big Thing, 2002 (Booker Prize); Making Things Better, 2003. OTHER: An Iconography of Cecil Rhodes, 1956. AUTHOR OF INTRODUCTIONS: Troy Chimneys, 1985; The Island of Desire, 1985; Summer in the Country, 1985; Living on Yesterday, 1986; The House of Mirth, 1987; (and ed.) The Stories of Edith Wharton, vol. 2, 1988; The Collected Stories of Edith Wharton, 1998. TRANSLATOR: W. George, Utrillo, 1960; J.-P. Crespelle, The Fauves, 1962; M. Gauthier, Gauguin, 1963. Contributor to periodicals.
"Brookner, Anita." Writers Directory 2005. . Encyclopedia.com. (January 15, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/arts/culture-magazines/brookner-anita
"Brookner, Anita." Writers Directory 2005. . Retrieved January 15, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/arts/culture-magazines/brookner-anita