July 20, 2009

Anita Brookner: Strangers

Posted in Brookner Anita at 8:00 am by John Self

Anita Brookner, to me, was always one of those authors so easily pigeonholed that I didn’t need to waste time reading her to know what I thought of her. She writes elegantly gloomy books about lonely people, and is the epitome of the middlebrow English Hampstead novel. Easy. But even while dimissing her thus, an itch worked at me. I kind of like elegantly gloomy books, and if the last two and a half years of this blog show anything, it’s that my tastes are pretty middlebrow. It wasn’t until I read an appreciative piece about Brookner by Mark Thwaite on ReadySteadyBook, that I allowed my secret desires to be unleashed.

Anita Brookner: Strangers
Well: I was right. Strangers, her 24th novel, is a mostly miserable story, and because of that, absolutely fascinating. In what I believe is a break with tradition for Brookner, her protagonist is not a woman who is lonely, but a man (who is lonely: it’s not that much of a break with tradition). And for all the overt bleakness of the subject, surely I can detect a twinkle in Brookner’s eye when she opens her book with the line:

Sturgis had always known that it was his destiny to die among strangers.

Sturgis’s solitude inhabits everything – the long days he must fill, the routine of his daily routes, the emptiness of his home. “Work! That was what was missing.” He has one relative, even more elderly than he is; in his weekly visits she perpetually protests her social activity (“Oh, I’m busy. Yes, I’m very busy”) but Sturgis knows that she is completely alone too. “If he cried out (but he would never do such a thing) no one would hear him.” His only other resource is “contact with strangers. … Fortunately there was no shortage of strangers; in fact everyone was a stranger.”

One of these strangers is Vicky Gardener, a woman in her 50s – twenty or so years his junior – whom he meets on a flight to Venice. He takes a trip there to avoid spending Christmas alone, even though he knows it will be expensive. “He justified himself, as he always did, to an audience of unseen critics.” Really what is missing in Sturgis’s life, apart from work, is children: a regret Brookner herself has expressed in a recent interview. Even as he strikes up a rapport with Vicky, Sturgis is reflecting that

he might have done better, even prospered, in another era, or even another place, where the natives, the citizens, were more helpful, more curious, and indeed more candid. … The answer might be to go in search of that other place, an easy republic of manners in which one could communicate and be understood. Even so he wondered if this were possible outside the confines of a novel.

He does, however, have a past, and has had lovers. “He had, in the past, wanted to be kind, and, as ever, had supplied the wrong sort of kindness.” His ex, Sarah, dismissed him as too ‘good’, a condemnation which he now considers was correct. “Goodness was not an evolutionary goal.” In Strangers – in Sturgis’s world anyway – his goal of a balanced relationship, even friendship, is impossible; there is never a mutual pull of interest. His elderly relative deflects his enquiries with assurances that she is fine. Vicky Gardener appears and vanishes and vanishes and appears, relying on Sturgis in moments of crisis, forever visiting unnamed friends in far-off places. Indeed there is something not quite real about Vicky – her sudden departures and arrivals, and the unexplained demands she places on him seem to represent a concentrated form of the sort of dependent relationship Sturgis dreads yet desires. This brings the suspicion that Brookner is dabbling in less naturalistic waters than I expected, so that when self-reference seems to creep in, it seems sobering rather than tricksy:

Life, as he had discovered, was not like a novel. Or perhaps he had mistaken fiction for truth, or, more likely, mistaken truth for a more thrilling, more authentic form of fiction.

This is also a book about age, and the only end of age. “There was a great deal of discussion in the media on care of the elderly, but only the elderly could – but would not – reveal their own distress at what was happening to them.” (Why aren’t they screaming?) “He was briefly glad that he had no children whose lives might be overshadowed, even ruined, by attendance on him.” Similarly, we see Brookner’s artistic despair as reflected in the interview above, in lines like these:

In comparison with what he saw in front of him, all artistic endeavour seemed futile, an attempt to engage with mortality and win the contest. There was no choice in the matter: the contest was unequal. Even sorrow was an inadequate response. What he felt was awe, even dread.

By now you have a fair idea of what you will get in Strangers, and of whether or not you will like it. It is sometimes a bleak and chilly book, but also rich and compelling. For Sturgis, “against his expectations the age of reason was proving something of a disappointment.” For me, Brookner has surprised in quite the opposite way.

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46 Comments »

  1. Colette Jones said,

    I’m glad you liked it, JS. I had forgotten about the references to fiction, thanks for the reminder!

  2. joy dye said,

    I read something by her years ago and enjoyed it even though I can’t remember a thing about it now.
    Your descriptions of the main character being too good reminds me of Iris Murdoch who relentlessly but with constant freshness puts people in messy situations to see how good or otherwise they will be. Usually the good people end up being hollow and candy floss while the unexpected ones have catalytic moments that dredge up something with a hint of goodness about them that may or may not burgeon into something else beyond the last page.
    I’m intrigued enough now to search her book titles to see if I can remember what I read.

  3. john h said,

    Glad to see you finally tackled Brookner, John. I had a strong suspicion based on other authors you like that you would respond positively.

    Brookner does occasionally have male main characters although not nearly as frequently as she does female. And it’s true that you know what you will get when you pick up a title by her. For me at least though, she never disappoints. I think she’s got a great mind.

  4. Sam said,

    I’ve not read Brookner, but I’ve never thought of her as – or heard anyone refer to her as – middlebrow; the opposite, if anything – very literary, with a similar attentiveness to language as John Banville was my general (uneducated) impression. What had given you the idea she was middlebrow?

  5. John Self said,

    What had given you the idea she was middlebrow?

    Hm. ‘Preconceptions’ is probably the answer. Perhaps I have an erroneous definition for middlebrow. I am thinking of what others might call Establishment Literary Fiction, yer McEwans and Barneses and the like.

    Certainly, based on my one experience of Brookner, she is nothing like Banville in linguistic terms: I always have to furrow my (middle)brow and hang onto his every word for fear of losing my place in the sentence. Brookner uses a much more clear and straightforward vocabulary.

    There is an amusing definition of ‘middlebrow’ in Michael Sims’ Adam’s Navel (which I will be writing about later this week), from Punch in 1925:

    It consists of people who are hoping that someday they will get used to the stuff they ought to like.

    Me pretty much to a T.

  6. Sam said,

    I totally agree that McEwan and Barnes are middlebrow; along with Ian Rankin, Monica Ali, Anita Shreve… A motley crew. My vague definition of middlebrow is, I guess, a certain cosiness of thought. Mildness, maybe. A rubbish definition, no doubt. I suppose the answer lies in not caring where your brow is.

    Anyway, yes, Brookner. As you were…

  7. Nick said,

    Books have a very strong emotional effect on me. Cheerful ones make me cheerful and gloomy ones gloomy. I tried a few Brookner novels but they were all so gloomy I had to give up. Very shallow of me I’m sure and I’m obviously spurning her literary credentials but my emotional resilience only goes so far….

  8. Max Cairnduff said,

    I tend to think of middlebrow as being a term for literary fiction that one doesn’t like.

    Either that or general fiction which isn’t really literary but which isn’t genre either.

    I’ve read Hotel du Lac, all I remember of it is I thought it very good but didn’t rush out to buy more. Brookner’s pleasures are I think quiet ones, in a sense they are very much what literary fiction is stereotyped as, well written books in which very little happens. Perhaps that’s part of the cosiness Sam refers to, though in part it’s not really Brookner’s fault that she’s somehow fallen into fashion.

    Nick, never read Derek Raymond and whatever you do don’t read They Shoot Horses Don’t They? If ever there were books to test emotional resilience…

  9. Annabel said,

    I’ve only read a couple, but enjoyed them with a slight feeling of schadenfreude, in that you know they’re a bit glum, but they’re also precise, subtle and you can relish the good writing, and hopefully feel glad it’s not you in the book!

  10. Tony S. said,

    For a time during which I read four of her novels, including “Look at Me” and “Hotel du Lac”, Anita Brookner was one of my very favorite authors. Another word which I would use to describe her writing besides ‘elegant’ is ‘intelligent’. Intelligence is not always a highly valued quality, but it does have its purposes. .

  11. Biblibio said,

    If all of Brookner’s books follow the same “lonely person” formula, I wonder how she manages to create new stories in each one. Hm, okay, there’s a better way to phrase this… I’m just wondering if Brookner isn’t a case of numerous similar good books, but that someone reading her entire booklist might start to get irked by all these gloomy lonely people. I see, though, that there’s a generally positive view of her books so perhaps I’ll concede and attempt to read one of them, as I’ve never actually gotten around to reading any of her books…

  12. John Self said,

    It’s probably a fair point, Biblibio, but equally one that could be made against almost any distinctive writer. Many writers work and rework the same themes throughout their career.

    I should have said that if anyone has particular recommendations of Brookner novels, speak now. I won’t be reading another of hers very soon, but I will go back to her at some point for sure.

  13. Linda Grant said,

    That recommendation will be A Friend From England.

    I worship the ground beneath her feet and the clothes on her back.

  14. Edward L. said,

    Hi, I have read nine of her novels (just finished Strangers) and some are stronger than others (though all are well worth reading). For me, the best have been Hotel du Lac (which is excellent, and has a stunning ending), A Private View, Visitors – and Strangers, which I think deserves a place on the Man Booker longlist (at least).

  15. Edward,

    I’m slightly disappointed to learn that the only one I’ve read may be the best one. I’ll look into the others you mention though, it’s very useful to have a recommendation from someone who’s read her entire output.

    Perhaps I should reread Hotel du Lac actually, I still have it. Hm, reread or new? I’ll have to think about that.

    Interesting to see Linda Grant’s a fan, I just bought When I lived in Modern Times which looks very interesting indeed. I note Linda recommends A Friend from England, which isn’t on Edward’s list. Decisions, decisions…

  16. John Self said,

    And Max, don’t forget Mark Thwaite, who (in the piece I linked to above) recommends A Start in Life, A Friend from England and Lewis Percy.

  17. I had forgotten that. I’ll read his article. Thanks for reminding me John.

  18. Edward L. said,

    Max: I should have mentioned that I have read Hotel du Lac three times and it got better each time. Though I guess there was something in that first reading that made me want to read it again – I was under no obligation. But I don’t want to overrate it – it is, like all of the books of hers I’ve read, quiet, understated, genteel…and repetitive. And it’s also the case that I have found some of her work a little infuriating.

    But I do feel that when she’s at her best, she invites the reader into a mindset which is initially disconcerting and then rather exhilarating. I have not yet managed to work out what it is about her writing I like so much (whereas with some of my other favourite authors – Hollinghurst, McEwan, Penelope Fitzgerald – I know and can enthuse). I love being in the consolation of her perfect sentences and I feel that her worldview, like that of, say, Leonard Cohen, is more uplifting than is often claimed. I hope you enjoy them if you give them a go. I haven’t read A Friend from England yet, so may make that my next Brookner.

    And after your comment about They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, I’m now intrigued to read that, so thanks!

  19. Edward L. said,

    A slight correction to my above post: I’m not sure ‘genteel’ is the right word… That was a bit of lazy writing on my part!

  20. They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? is I think an underrated masterpiece, a term I don’t use lightly.

    Interesting on Hotel du Lac, I may revisit that first then.

    Regarding Hollinghurst, I’ve read the Swimming Pool Library and The Folding Star, oddly the latter I only part liked when I read it but it’s proved to have real longevity in my memory. It’s curious how some books continue to grow after finishing them. I’ll probably read The Line of Beauty next, but I find his prose is concentrated, a little goes a long way, I leave long spells between his books.

    I do think he could sometimes have a few more characters who’re not attractive gay men, in The Swimming Pool Library in particular at times my suspension of disbelief was rather challenged by the fact that everyone the protagonist met seemed keen to sleep with him, London des still have the odd straight man after all. The same is true of Larry Kramer’s novel Faggots, but that is actually set in the gay scene where TSPL isn’t entirely.

  21. John Self said,

    I’m not sure ‘genteel’ is the right word…

    I think it’s OK, Edward – in Strangers at least, there is a sort of gentility to the world that the characters inhabit (educated, literary, rarefied) even if the writing is actually quite hard edged.

  22. John Self said,

    Max, re Hollinghurst, surely Edward Manners in The Folding Star wasn’t attractive? Which was part of his problem when trying to sustain his ‘relationship’ with Luc. (Odd, incidentally, that I should remember the names of those characters when I haven’t read the book in 15 years.)

    As to The Swimming-Pool Library, wasn’t it set in 1983, which he described in the opening lines (or maybe it was on the blurb) as “the last year of its kind” or similar, ie pre-Aids? Presumably his intention was to reflect a certain gay milieu which existed before the great crash of the mid-80s.

    My take on that book was that William (now I am struggling to remember the names) was very good-looking but didn’t make much of an effort, whereas the guy he was after was not naturally attractive but made much more of himself. William ended up ploughing the same old routes at the end, and it seemed to me a sort of analogy for the twin possibilities of privilege v work.

    Incidentally, I would happily warn people off Hollinghurst’s less-read third novel The Spell, which proved he couldn’t do comedy very well.

  23. Linda Grant said,

    Anita Brookner has been criticised for portraying characters who are doormats. But of course her great brilliance is in portraying the characters who are doing the treading.I think she is a savage writer.

  24. Hm, you’re right actually John. Your recollection of the characters’ names suggests it impacted you as it did me, living in the memory longer than one might expect.

    TSPL yes, it was attempting to portray that milieu, my issue was more that the protagonist spends a lot of the novel outside it and yet still only meets people within it. In a way, it’s a slightly insular novel, I think The Folding Star the better work in part because of that. Also, The Folding Star was less neat, which I thought an improvement.

    Like you, I recall TSPL less well, though it did have some tremendous writing. There’s a wonderful line, I’ll need to look it up, about mice running around the tracks in the tube like clockwork creatures (obviously that’s not the line, the original is a thing of beauty and keen observation).

    Regarding The Spell, I think you’re the first person I’d heard of who’s read it, I figured there might be a reason for that.

  25. John Self said,

    it’s a slightly insular novel

    For sure. Am I right in recalling there are no female characters in it? (As in Britten’s opera of Billy Budd, which I think the narrator goes to see at one point.)

    Incidentally, I believe Hollinghurst will have a new novel out next year, which means Banville has leapfrogged him in the Booker-winner’s-next-novel race.

  26. Edward L. said,

    John: Thanks – you put the gentility in its proper context!

    Re: Hollinghurst, I have some problems with The Swimming-Pool Library – for one, I’ve never totally bought the idea that the first-person voice could belong to the character (or point-of-view) it is attributed to. In general, though, I don’t have a problem with the ubiquity of gay characters in his books. I’m thinking of something Hollinghurst said in interview (and I wish I had the exact quote or reference) – namely, that he is trying to posit a kind of gay narrating position in contrast to most books which, he feels, assume a straight position. And I feel his books do offer an attempt at ‘normalising’ (and I hate the word, but I have to use it here) the status of gay characters in literature. I think The Folding Star is particularly successful in this regard, especially when it comes to Edward Manners.

    Max, funny you should mention The Line of Beauty – I picked it up this morning to look something up in it and found I couldn’t put it down for an hour (which is always so annoying, as now it’s later than I intended it to be!). I do agree that a little of his prose goes a long way. In that sense, The Spell is fascinating, as the writing is more economical. I think that ironically it gets a bit overlooked because it’s not as ‘big’ as his other three.

  27. Edward L. said,

    Sorry, I hadn’t seen your most recent posts as I was writing my comment, so just to add, I really like The Spell! I agree that not all of the comedy comes off, but I think that the hardback’s blurb that describes it as a ‘comedy of sexual manners’ does it a bit of a disservice. I think it is a comedy in the Shakespearean sense, in that fantastical things happen with potions on midsummer nights and there are all sorts of farcical sexual entanglements. But that book has really stayed with me. Well worth a read!

  28. Sam Jordison said,

    Interesting blog John… Your feelings similar to mine. I’ve just read Hotel Du Lac, which starts wonderfully… ends… disappointingly. but still very good writing.

    Is that the real Linda Grant up there ^^^ by the way? Hello!

  29. John Self said,

    Yes it is Sam. You see what she did with that “clothes on her back” thing? Cunning.

  30. Linda Grant said,

    Hello, Sam. Gearing up for judging some books by their covers?

  31. John,

    I don’t recall precisely, but I certainly don’t remember any female characers.

    Sam, a new gravatar, and much better than your present one in the Guardian where you look suspiciously like a zombie. What happened to the beach photo?

    The judging books by their covers thing was fun actually.

  32. Edward,

    Shakespearean comedies? I did see a funny one recently oddly enough, but it was the first time I’d ever laughed at one. It’s not a phrase that always fills me with glee.

    Still, interesting to hear your view, a misleading back cover blurb can really sabotage a novel, creating reader expectations quite at odds with the book.

    Sam, on an unrelated note, there’s a discussion of the Hugo’s over at Torque Control that might interest you, about the judging process and their value as an award: http://vectoreditors.wordpress.com/2009/07/18/on-hugos/

  33. Sam Jordison said,

    Hello Linda, I’m actually doing something slightly different this year, although will be still following the Booker closely. Details on the Guardian next week…

    And yes, MaxC I wasn’t allowed this gravatar on the Gruan… was told I had to be against a white background and forward facing (hence the disappearance of the beach)… Did the current awful one in a big rush, after being kept up all night by my crying baby… Keep meaning to get it fixed. Maybe I should give it a go before the exciting new booker experiment…. My Mum keeps telling me to change it too…

    And thanks! Hadn’t seen that post. Good take on the annual Hugo-moan… Of course, even the moaning is good, in a way. At least people are talking about, thinking about the books…

    • Thomas said,

      So many good comments. Although I am a huge fan of Brookner, I still find myself agreeing with those here who do not like her for various reasons. I have read most of her prodigious output and they are all quite gloomy and about seemingly lonely people. And yes, it is impossible for me to remember the plots of any of the books because they are all so similar in mood and the plots tend to be, hmm, somewhat non-existant. But I have loved every single one of them. I used to describe her novels as being about people who are sitting around waiting to die. Or at the very least trying to kill time until 8:00 pm rolls around so they can go to bed.

      If you have read only one Brookner and not liked it, I don’t think you will have any better luck if you try to read others. Literary merit aside, I think that Brookner is perhaps the consistent writer out there. A lonely, thinking man’s Barbara Cartland, without the romance. Same story different names. And yet, I still love them. Her characters almost revel in their own loneliness, in fact they seem to invite it. They just want the rest of the world to leave them alone. Lots of tales of moments lost and lives half wasted. Glory days, if they ever existed, are long in the past. Rarely acting, her characters are instead acted upon.

      I like them not only because they seem comfortable and cosy to me, but because they flesh out two parts of my personality. They appeal to that part of me that wishes to be left alone in self-determined solitude, but they also prod me into doing and being. They are like cautionary tales, encouraging me to not miss moments in life, to get off my butt and (excuse the cliche) seize the day.

  34. nico said,

    Would you say this is the same window???

    http://www.fantasticfiction.co.uk/r/ruth-rendell/water-s-lovely.htm

  35. Annabel said,

    I read Strangers a while ago, and while I normally love Brookner, she certainly belaboured the loneliness point this time around.
    On a different note, having just commented on covers on the Brooklyn comments list, I’m keen to find out more about Sam’s judging of covers (out here in the former colonies we might miss out on the important things…)

  36. Annabel said,

    Oh, and another thing: John do you have a subscription option that would alert me to your postings?

  37. John Self said,

    I think the business about Sam referred to this entry in his Booker Club on the Guardian book blog, Annabel.

    As for a subscription option, if you click on “RSS Feed” on the right sidebar (near the top, in the block marked ‘Email and things to click’) you should be able to subscribe to my blog using Bloglines or a similar feed reader.

  38. ashmita said,

    Wow this is a great discussion. I have not read Strangers by Brookner but I did read Hotel Du Lac by the same author. This book is supposed to have won a Booker but I caannot say the book left a lasting impression on me. I mean, it moves so slowly from the beginning it is difficult to concentrate on. There is very little plot and action. Some character studies are good but overall it is not one of my life changing reads…

  39. John Self said,

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts ashmita. I must admit that Strangers is similar to how you describe Hotel du Lac – though that just makes me want to read it all the more!

  40. Mel said,

    I just completed my first ever Brookner, “A Start in Life”. I really loved it. It is a great account of a reading centered life. I will for sure read more of her work, hopefully all in time. Thanks for the very good review and the comments are all great for a Brookner neophyte.

  41. nico said,

    Wonderful quotes, John. I have just finished reading this book and was left wondering. I was also struck by the character Mrs. Gardner, that seemed somewhat far-fetched, but I think that is precisely the thing, since the novel is testing the limits between fiction and reality. It is also very intriguing the way Brookner handles her intertexts (Freud, Proust and of course James). And I agree with you that (fear of) ‘age’ is the topic here, treated in a milder fashion than Spark’s “Memento Mori”, of course. But what I really liked (and I ask you what you thought about this), is that endind where he hangs up the phone after receiving the call. I mean, he’s terrified of dying alone, of being left and quotes Stendhal’s case, and I think this ‘friendhip’ with this woman, who seems so haphazard, is a way to take care of that, and finally he just dismisses her, suggesting some ‘maturity’? ‘freedom’?
    (also, I though there was going to be something else in those cases!).

  42. John Self said,

    Sorry nico, the typical pattern with books I’ve read months previously tends to be that all I can remember of them is what I’ve written above. So the ending I can’t say much about by the way.

    (And yes, I will be reading Müller’s Land of Green Plums soon. Thanks again for the recommendation.)

  43. Colette Jones said,

    nico, I wondered about the end too. I think he finally found a level of self-respect that prevented him from continuing with this woman who was clearly only using him for her own ends. Of course, he was using her too, and maybe figured out that it’s just as lonely hanging out with someone for the sake of not being alone.

  44. nico said,

    Yes Colette, I thought that too, you summarized it with the exact words… I felt the same way about their relationship. It’s a very interesting novel and I already bought another book by her. Thanks!

  45. I love this novel. I love anything by Brookner. She understands English so well and yet when she writes, she writes like a French novelist!


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