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.
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.