By Thomas Otto
Eighteen years ago, as an American with an inexplicable, but deep-seated Anglophilia, I picked up Anita Brookner’s novel A Friend from England (1987) based on the title alone. I’m not sure what I expected, but what I found was a rather plot-less and depressing character study of a woman who didn’t seem to have much going in her life. Being the relatively tender age of 28, I thought I had written off the idea of reading anything else by her. Then five months later I found myself in a charming but threadbare pensione in Florence with nothing to read. As is often the case with that class of tourist accommodation, there was a ‘leave one, take one’ bookcase on a landing near our room. I don’t recall what the other choices were, but I ended up grabbing Altered States (1996) and falling in love with Brookner’s work in the process.
Again, to my younger self, my second try had me thinking Brookner was all about depressing characters and no plot. But for some reason I reveled in both her characters and her writing. So much so, that two months later I picked up Look at Me (1983). I was well and truly hooked and never missed the opportunity to buy her books whenever I came across them.
It should be noted that when I first read Brookner in 1998, she had already written 18 novels at a clip of one a year, and still had six more to come. Well-regarded, but under-appreciated, her later novels were always available as remainders on the sale tables almost as quickly as they were published, or so it seemed.
It wasn’t until 2011 when I finished reading all 24 of her novels that I began to think I was being unfair in characterizing her books as sad tales of sad lives. Every time I wrote something in that vein on my blog I worried what Brookner herself would think of such oversimplification. As she was an art history scholar trained in the ways of extracting meaning from images, it seems unlikely her novels were as two dimensional as my feeble descriptive abilities allowed me to convey. It was also equally unlikely that all of these sad characters were as autobiographical as I made them out to be, but there seemed to be so much that pointed that direction. She remained single and childless throughout her life. She was an only child of Jewish immigrants from Poland. She was comfortable financially and fluent in French. The milieu of her characters was inseparable to me from the little I knew about her very private personal life.
My knee-jerk assumption that Brookner’s characters were distillations of her own character was perhaps fueled by a sneaking suspicion that I was more like one of her characters than I wanted to admit. I used to vehemently feel that her novels were cautionary tales. The lives depicted were the result of never quite connecting with other humans or indeed with life itself. I would find myself railing at the lack of self-determination and willingness to just go along with things until it was time to slip off to death. But there was always a part of me that was attracted to these ciphers. Sure, some of my attraction stemmed from the fact that her characters, whatever their flaw or problems, were always well-off and in possession of comfortable flats in London. But if I dug deeper into my own feelings I was also attracted to the solitude and the comfort of just letting things happen. Did I really need to spend my life getting worked up over politics and the environment and every other little thing that bothered me?
No matter how her novels made me feel the first time I read them, I have since realized that, as much as I loved her work, I did indeed sell Brookner short. Since 2011 I have been re-reading her novels in chronological order and have been fascinated by how much depth, and plot, and wit, I missed the first time. Eight novels into my re-reading, I find they still have all of the trademark Brookner qualities I love, but there is so much more going on and her work was much more subversive than I ever thought previously. Her Booker Prize-winning novel Hotel du Lac (1984) is full of trenchant satire and her heroine in A Friend from England—my first Brookner—has so much more sex than I thought would be possible of any of her characters. It all happens off the page and none of it is described, but it’s there, and it makes me relish the fact that I still have 16 more Brookner novels to read a second time and so many more things to discover in the process.
Thomas Otto regularly blogs about books and bookish things at hogglestock.com.
In 2011, he teamed with Simon Savidge of Savidge Reads to host International Anita Brookner Day to celebrate Brookner’s birthday and her 30 years of writing fiction. In addition to the ongoing development of a gazetteer of London place names that appear in Brookner’s novels, Thomas continues to update the International Brookner Day blogsite with his own and other bloggers’ reviews of her work.