Anita Brookner

April 9, 2009 at 7:47 pm (Anglophilia, books)

Back in August of last year, inspired by one of Jonathan Yardley’s “Second Reading” pieces, I posted Six Gifted Englishwomen. One of those six was novelist and art historian Anita Brookner.


Brookner has long been one of my favorite writers. When I still worked at the library, I used to recommend her books to people by characterizing her as the anti-Clancy, or anti-Grisham, or nowadays I suppose it would be the anti-James Patterson. Her novels are like still, deep pools: all that really matters is happening beneath the (deceptively tranquil) surface. Instead of being snared by a fast moving story, the reader is  drawn down and down, into the farthest recesses of the human soul, to the very wellspring of anxiety, suffering, and joy.

All the while, Brookner’s sentence structure and vocabulary delight and amaze. In the “Gifted Englishwomen” post, I stated: “The precision of Brookner’s prose puts me in mind of a pointillist painting.” Just so.

Here are some of the novels that I’ve read and enjoyed:

altered angels

leaving latecomers

laugier fraud


winner of the 1984 Booker Prize

winner of the 1984 Booker Prize

Since 2005’s Leaving Home, we have had nothing new from this writer. I was beginning to lose hope.  And so, I have been prompted to do this post  by an exceedingly welcome bit of intelligence: there is, at last,  another Brookner novel on the horizon! This news comes from Britain’s Literary Review, a publication I discovered several years ago while Ron and I were wandering through the huge periodicals emporium (part of W.H. Smith, I believe)  at London’s Victoria Station. I now subscribe to this most excellent journal.literary-review

The March issue features a review of Strangers. I assiduously avoided reading said review in any depth, though, being desirous only of the news of the novel’s publication.

Some years ago, I presented a lecture and discussion of Hotel Du Lac at the Guthrie Memorial Library in Hanover, Pennsylvania. While researching Anita Brookner’s life on this occasion, I received a genuine surprise, almost a shock. Brookner’s female characters have tended to conform to my somewhat stereotypical view of the quintessential Englishwoman of the old school and d’un certain âge: reserved, subtly ironic, somewhat formal, perhaps even slightly secretive, and possessed of deep ancestral ties to English soil. I had tended to think of the author herself in those same general terms. Brookner was, in fact, born in London in 1928;  her immediate antecedents, however, were Polish Jews who fled to England in order to escape the Nazis. In deference to anti-German sentiments in England during World War Two, her mother changed the family surname from Bruckner to Brookner.

Despite being British by birth, Brookner has conceded that her family’s origins have often made her feel like an outsider in her own country:  “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.”  This sense of dislocation has informed her fiction, adding a poignant dimension to the suffering of her characters.

( Gustave Mahler put the same sentiment in terms considerably more harsh:”I am thrice homeless, as a native of Bohemia in Austria, as an Austrian among Germans, and as a Jew throughout the world. Everywhere an intruder, never welcomed.”)

At any rate: Strangers is due out in this country on June 16. It is an event to be anticipated and celebrated by those of us who love the novels of Anita Brookner.



  1. Pauline Cohen said,

    I too love Anita Brookner’s writing and have a similar background. I understand completely what she said about having a sense of alienation from the mainstream culture because of growing up Jewish in England. At my English boarding school in the 50s, I was considered “foreign” although I had been born in London. But I believe things have changed for the better. My sister who was 4 years younger told me that she had never felt the same way. She always felt that she was English.

    Hotel du Lac is a great favorite of mine. There’s a good film of it with Vanessa Redgrave (I believe) in the main role.

    • lucy locket said,

      the film is good but for heaven’s sake it is NOT Vanessa Redgrave…although I am sure the actor would be thrilled to hear of your confusion!

      • cecilia ellis said,

        The late Anna Massey starred in Hotel du Lac.

      • Roberta Rood said,

        Yes, Cecilia; I’ve seen it. I thought she was wonderful.

  2. Lakshmi Padmanabhan said,

    I am an ardent fan of Anita Brookner. I used to wait eagerly for her novels in the 80s

    when they were coming out regularly. I could relate so well toall the angst in them

    that I chose 2 of them – A Start in Life and Providence – for my M.Phil thesis. The Next

    Big Thing was the last book I read. Glad to know there are later creations. Would love

    to read them.

    lakshmi , Mumbai

    • Roberta Rood said,

      Lakshmi – such a beautiful name!
      One of the best things about this blogging project has been hearing from people like yourself, from far away lands, who share my interests and passions. Thanks so much for writing.

  3. brad said,

    I took “Strangers” from the library, thinking Brookner was going to tell me a story. If she ever gets to it, it will be without me. She seems more to want to impress with her manipulation of words that in telling a tale, which is typical of the “creative” writing genre. In spite of it, I plodded on, hoping for the best but I was finally done in by the bad grammar. The lady needs a copy editor who paid attention in her high school grammar classes, which Bruckner obviously did not.

    • Roberta Rood said,

      Wow! She’s obviously not your cup of tea. At least, I hope that’s the only problem… I have not read Strangers yet and so cannot comment on that particular title. I can only say that in the past I have found her sentence structure exceedingly precise and elegant.

      Ah well – we shall see…

  4. brad said,

    That’s Brookner in the last line above, not Bruckner, n.t.s.

  5. brad said,

    Roberta, I’m sure Brookner wants you to find her sentence structure exceedingly precise and elegant, but where’s the story? Do you like to see elegant words all lined up like the cars of a passing freight train? So you can sit in your car at the crossing and watch them but have no idea where the train is going?

    Here’s a different take on it. “He (Peter de Jonge) went on: ‘What I learned from him (James Patterson) is that you can’t be self-indulgent. Even the most literary book has to be a page turner. You’re not accomplishing anything by writing something that’s hard to read.”

    Of “Shadows Still Remain,” Mr. Patterson said: “I think it’s terrific. He (Peter) knows how to keep it bubbling, which keeps you (the writer) out of the poorhouse.”

  6. cathy said,

    If your reading Brookner for ‘story” i.e. plot) you really shouldn’t be reading Brookner. Her stories are interior landscapes. You don’t turn pages or skip paragraphs because each page, each sentence, each word demands attention and caring. I know of no one who captures isolation in the midst of modern world better. She’s not Patterson and if I were she, I would be insulted by the comparison!

    • Roberta Rood said,

      Well said, Cathy!

  7. Brad said,

    Brad asked, ” Do you like to see elegant words all lined up like the cars of a passing freight train? So you can sit in your car at the crossing and watch them but have no idea where the train is going?”

    Cathy and Roberta both answer “yes”.

    I will copy this exchange and send it to a professor at a major American university who teaches “creative” writing, and ask him to consider this .. uh .. what? .. maybe the first question that must be answered? Why am I writing this? Am I telling a tale? or am I conveying, however tediously, an important emotion?

    Perhaps publishers could let us know whether a book tells a tale or is really about word manipulation (e.g., Lan Samantha Chang, Hemingway). Maybe an inconspicuous “T” or “W” to let us know before we buy.

    • Cathy said,

      It’s not about the words. It’s about using the words to capture particular emotional spaces. It’s OK not to like it, I’m sure there are lots of people who don’t like Brookner. There are also a lot of people who don’t like Patterson. One is npt good because he or she is not the other. I f you want a story read Patterson. If you want to know characters deeply read Brookner. I’m pretty sure that Patterson won’t win a Booker Prize and I’m pretty sure that Patterson will sell more books (not to me though–I’ll spend my money on Brookner.

  8. Brad said,

    You might like Lan Samantha Chang’s “Inheritance”, which waxes lyrically. Each of her many words will demand your “attention and caring”. It’s the sort of thing that people who like that sort of thing will like. I was deterred by the bad grammar but there are those who can slide right over bad grammar.
    I don’t read Patterson either but the last figure I saw was that he made $30 million in royalties for ’06 or ’07 or whatever year it was. There is great profit in writing for morons. I only had a Patterson book to check an item of grammar.

  9. Vaibhav said,

    I read Providence. It is so good that one cannot guess who marries Maurice Bishop until the last paragraph of the book.

  10. Mark said,

    Interesting blog and even more interesting comment exchange. But, to the point: I’ve not read anything by Ms. Brookner but would love to, yet frankly I’ve no idea where to start. Any suggestions for a rookie? Thank you.

    • Vaibhav Waghmare said,

      Hallo Mark,
      Anita Brookner is too stunning writer. I have just started to read her novels for my research work. I have taken all her novels for research work. If you want to read really her novels, you must read from her first novel, A START IN LIFE (THE DEBUT). Hope you will enjoy it. If you are interested give me your email id. Thank you.

      • Mark said,

        Thank you.

    • Roberta Rood said,

      I would not start with the latest. I agree with Vaibhav’s suggestion, and begin with her earliest work. I also highly her recommend her Booker prize winner, HOTEL DU LAC. This is a novel that lulls you with its seemingly languid pace, but then…well, read it and see!

  11. Judith Winters said,

    I love Anita Brookner and have done so for years. To me, her prose style sounds more than elegant and precise; it sounds right. I recently went on a Jodi Picoult binge because she was so readable and I didn’t much like her, and I wanted to understand more about that. Finally, disgusted, I went back to Bruckner and read “Dolly”. What a relief!

    Brookner does not chat. She does not deluge the reader with characters and subplots. She is both clear and complicated. In many ways, she reminds me of Anthony Powell. If I fall asleep during a book by Anita Brookner, it’s because I need the sleep.

  12. Judith Winters said,

    Please notify me of follow-up comments.

  13. sarah mercier said,

    I read Hotel du Lac when it was first published. I am 47 now, and hold every book I read up to it. Ms. Brookner , I have been jaded for life! Something is stirred in me in that small swiss hotel. All other stories are just shadows in relief. Thank you Ms Brookner!

  14. Ramona McDaris said,

    I won’t even comment on Brad’s opinion of Anita Brookner’s writing, except to say that if he found her “hard to read”, as opposed to James Patterson, then he should definitely stick to Patterson’s offerings!

    Anita Brookner, in my opinion, is the most interesting author of the past century. Perhaps she basically writes “for women”, although I have read and equally enjoyed her books which were devoted to a man’s point of view. Her word pictures are stories in themselves. Anyone with normal intelligence should be able to find the “plot” of her stories, as long as the reader possesses some sensitivity, himself. And nobody, absolutely nobody can plumb the inner thoughts of her characters in the way that Brookner can, while at the same time revealing to the reader that, in spite of our flaws, each of us has worth and strengths.

    I look forward to each of her novels with eagerness…and have read all of them thus far. Perhaps it is just a coincidence, but it seems to me that she has been looking through my window, and I feel she knows my every circumstance, and I feel that each novel was written with me in mind!

    Than you, Dr. Brookner, for having provided so much pleasure and insight and encouragement, simply by telling your simple tales in such a way as to make them seem very significant.

    Ramona McDaris

    • Roberta Rood said,

      Thank you so much, Ramona, for taking the time to post this thoughtful response. I agree with you completely: it seems to me that anyone who loves fine writing will appreciate the tremendous achievements in prose of Anita Brookner.

  15. Brad said,

    Ramona writes: “Anita Brookner, in my opinion, is the most interesting author of the past century. Perhaps she basically writes ‘for women’, although I have read and equally enjoyed her books which were devoted to a man’s point of view.”

    Ms. Brookner will need a sex-change operation before she will be able to write “from a man’s point of view”, just as I would need a major overhaul before I could write from a woman’s point of view.

    Au contraire, if you are interested enough in cross-dressing to have a look, Janet Skeslien Charles’, “Moonlight in Odessa”, is as close as I’ve seen for writing from a point of view not one’s own. “Moonlight” is, for you purists, as well-written as you are likely to find, some bad grammar notwithstanding.

    As you have certainly guessed by now, I do not often read books written by women (too much chintz prints and lip gloss for my taste) but, having had a connection to the Odessa Grape Growers Association in the past, I saw “Odessa” on the cover and decided to give it a shot, for which I was richly rewarded, as I hope you will be if you try it..

    • Ramona McDaris said,

      Brad, thanks, and…WE GET IT! (You don’t like Brookner, so why don’t we just leave it at that?) You sound as though you have had a bad day (week, year…). Sincerely, I hope you have a good 2010. Meanwhile, I will be eagerly awaiting Anita Brookner’s next!



  16. Brad said,

    You missed the point, Ramona. It whizzed right past you and you didn’t even see it go by. But that’s O.K. I’ll bet Santa finds your chimney anyway.

    • Ramona McDaris said,

      Braddie, Braddie…

      You, in fact, would make a wonderful character in an Anita Brookner book…I think you are lonely! Anita will fix you up. I love her endings – that’s where the revelation of strength and hope come in. I’m a sucker for the endings!
      Merry Christmas, and I hope Santa finds you, too…Alas, I am cat-sitting for my globe-trotting daughter, here in a cabin, snowed in, with only one little pot-belly stove and NO CHIMNEY for Santa to come down!…but LOTS OF BOOKS, and I just finished one of Anita Brookner”s this A.M. Somehow, I had missed it and it is one of her earlier ones. It’s called, “Fraud”. Warning: it’s a girly read (though not much chintz).


  17. Satori said,

    Brad said, “…but where’s the story? Do you like to see elegant words all lined up like the cars of a passing freight train? So you can sit in your car at the crossing and watch them but have no idea where the train is going?”

    Do you like to spend your days as pleasantly, as productively, and as meaningfully as possible? Do you hope to somehow achieve certain dreams, like marrying and building a family? Do you consider your place in the world and hope to leave an impression there before you die?

    Then there’s your story.

    Many days are dull and life passes from and into unknown points at a deceptive rate. Dreams come true sometimes as a consequence of intention, sometimes not. Self-reflection, like life, is a solitary act, one made significant only with experience and hindsight. “Strangers” is the story a man’s contemplation of a long life. The point of view is that of a man nearing the end of his life, one which few writers dare approach with such patience and to such poignant effect.

    I’m not sure what’s more regrettable: having that point whiz past one’s own head like a freight train or having one’s head lodged firmly in the source of one’s own wind.

  18. Ramona McDaris said,


    Your comments were the best! But did Brad “get it”? Braddie, where ARE you?! (Reading Brookner?…but with a different point of view this time, I hope). Seriously, Brad, there are authors I don’t enjoy, so I just drop them (Dan Brown is the perfect example of a “smash-hit writer” whose work is so full of flaws and sensational, “gotta-keep-’em-enthralled-and-be-hanged-truth-and-logic”, moments. I will never, ever attempt another of his shoddy works, and you should just probably let Anita Brookner go, as I did Brown (but for a different reason, as stated). Thank goodness, there are perfict-fit authors for each of us, and you will find yours. Anita Brookner shall remain my favorite, I believe. I am going now to order “Hotel de Luc” and re-read it…it was my first, and when firsts make a good impression, they always remain very special…



  19. Brad said,

    People who write on outhouse walls,
    Should roll their into little balls,
    People who read these lines of wit,
    Should eat the little balls of .

    (Author unknown)

    Braddie’s still here and Braddie’s still saying, drivel’s drivel.

    If you like drivel, keep reading Brookner’s “Hotel du Lac”. No problem. Carry on. Or, as the man liked to say in Army basic training, “As you was, you meat-heads”.

  20. Judith Winters said,


    Shut up.

  21. Ramona McDaris said,

    Braddie (Bratty?),

    Oh–now I get it! From your little “potty-poem”, I see that you are only twelve years old! It’s perfectly understandable, therefore, that you would not enjoy adult literature, but maybe later… Eagerly awaiting your adolescent reply, but regret that I will be unable to pursue this juvenile discussion…”Hotel du Lac” beckons:-)

    Happy New Year and Happy Reading!


    • Roberta Rood said,

      Okay…As the author of the original post, may I suggest, albeit with some hesitation, an end to the outbreak of hostilities, name-calling, or what-have-you? Perhaps the point has been reached – nay, exceeded! – where the parties should agree to disagree.
      I have to say: the last place I would have expected a verbal food fight to occur is in this particular post’s comment section. I also have to say that some of the remarks have been perceptive and provocative – at least, for me. I never actually posted a review of STRANGERS. Why? Because I felt deeply ambivalent about it. Although the novel was rich in signature Brookner elements – ironic observations on human nature, elegant use of the language, deep probing into the sources of angst and ennui – I found myself at times feeling quite impatient – as though I were reading a tedious rehashing of the same themes that Brookner has been writing about over these many years.It seemed tired, somehow. Or maybe it was I who was tired…
      I still maintain my respect and affection for the works of this author. Those who disagree with me either way are certainly free to do so.
      Finally – and maybe it’s my age (65) – but “potty poems” and any sort of vulgarity of expression really depress me – so I request that commenters refrain from using them in future. Other than that – comment away!

  22. Brad said,

    Re: potty poems. There are those who consider the graffiti written on New York subway cars a distinctive art form, just as there are those who consider the ditties written on men’s-room walls a distinctive art form. There are collectors of both and there are treatises written on the subjects. The ditty I quoted was not mine. I have seen it many times on the noted display areas, along with other cleverness and drivel; some of the former, lots of the latter — just as with authors of novels.

    I have been asked to “shut up”, as indeed I shall. Bye, bye.

  23. Satori said,

    I’m quite sorry if I introduced any vulgarity, especially if it obscured my initial point: Brookner writes about a life of the mind. We each experience life differently. I believe that art talks about the commonalities we share.

    Brad, I recognize “Strangers” as an acute depiction of a life led deliberately, yet without foresight. The protagonist is a passive one and in fact doesn’t take any real action until the very end, thus “Strangers” is a cautionary morality tale and as such, forms the highest kind of art. To you, this kind of life may look like a freight train, especially if you look only from a distance rather than from self-reflection. The exercise of reading Brookner might provide you with a glimpse into the life of another person’s being, not merely an outline of events or a reflection of one’s own beliefs..

    It’s unfortunate that your argument “drivel is drivel” lacks a rhetorical foothold. Unless you provide a more constructive observation, there is no traction upon which a mature debate can be built. Your argument is that the book doesn’t have enough action to tell a story and yet you make proclamations based solely on your experience of the book, not the book itself.

  24. Judith Winters said,

    For Brad, Roberta, and all,

    I apologize for telling Brad to shut up. I was possibly vulgar, and certainly rude. This is no way to behave, especially when contemplating a new year. Which I hope we all have a happy one of.

    Best wishes to all!

  25. Brad Johnston said,

    I have availed myself of ‘Strangers’, as requested. Our various opinions to this point have been opinions and mine are no less valid that yours (plural, y’alls?). Here, however, are some facts (underlined) for your consideration. In the first 25 pages of ‘Strangers’, the word ‘had’ appears 151 times, which is (opinion here) more than twice what I consider normal. Of the total, 28 are used as the past tense of the verb ‘to have’, or in the past perfect, or in the subjunctive. All the rest, 123 in number, are incorrect, giving an error percentage of 81%, which is on the very (underlined) high side of the many samples I have taken of various writers. We should have seen it coming from her first sentence on the first page of the first chapter — ‘Sturgis had always known that it was his destiny to die among strangers’. Those are facts. Here’s an opinion. If you don’t know what’s the matter with the sentence, you must re-take the 6th grade. Aw, c’mon, you guys, lighten up. The lady has a terrible ‘had’ problem. Look and see for yourselves. 151 ‘had’s in 25 pages is off the wall.

  26. Ramona said,

    Had, shmad…still love her stories!

    Totally irrelevant to the posts… is Brad a Texan?

  27. Judith Winters said,


    I’m ashamed to admit that I don’t know what’s wrong with that sentence. They would never let me back into the 6th grade! Would you kindly explain what IS wrong with that sentence?

    Thank you. I clearly need to know.


  28. Brad Johnston said,


    Perhaps you would be so kind as to direct your question to so we will not annoy those who consider grammar “totally irrelevant” to discussions of writing and style (see item second above). I have been asked (correction, told) to “shut up”, so other than to take the suggestion that I examine “Strangers”, which I am doing and about which I commented, I really should keep quiet.


  29. alice said,

    Hi all. I have been reading your comments with great interest.
    I too am an avid Brookner reader. My absolute favourite is Look at Me.This book I reread every couple of years, always with enormous enjoyment. Any more Look at Me nuts out there? Next in line must be Hotel du Lac. Alice

  30. Ramona McDaris said,

    Yes, Alice, I am also a great fan of “Look at me”…It’s been awhile, so maybe I will re-read it soon.

    To bring you up to date, Brad was annoyed by Brookner’s frequent use of the past perfect tense (“She HAD done this-or-that), A mini-debate was going on amongst us readers, and since that time, I have found this excerpt that might clarify it for us. It helped me, at least. I read another, longer explanation and it also implied there there is no”rule”–rather, one should just use the past perfect to move the reader two steps into the past…then using it occasionally after that is O.K., but not constantly, etc… And, be sure to make it clear when the writer is coming OUT of the two steps into the past.

    TENSE CHANGES, present to past and back:

    Developing a clear transition from the present to the past and back can be difficult. If the story is mainly in past tense (he said, they went, etc.) use past perfect (he had said, they had gone) to show the transition into the past. Since the past perfect tense can become repetitious, you may want to convert to simple past tense after you’ve established the flashback is taking place. When the flashback ends, you’ll also need to clearly indicate that the scene is switching back to the current time period; another sentence in past perfect as the flashback ends may work as a good transition.


    I hope this helps, and if I can find the other explanation, maybe I will send it, too; it was even clearer, but longer.


  31. Ramona McDaris said,

    P.S. Sorry, I had to go on and send the longer version of “the HAD problem” (past perfect tense). It was just too good not to send; so clear and concise that even I understood it.


    about fiction
    A blog about writing, editing and teaching – and life in general.

    19 June 2007
    Past perfect
    Past perfect is one of those difficult tenses. Sorry to bore you all, but today I’m in the mood for a grammar rant. (Wearing the grammar teacher and editor hats today.) I love tenses. I love all their different names and the way they interconnect, and how you use them differently. For the uninitiated, past perfect is a tense formed with “had” + past participle of a verb, eg had walked, had danced, had brought, had eaten, had ridden etc.

    Past perfect is used for actions completed in the past before another action in the past. It’s like a second step back in time. For example, if I’m writing in present tense and want to indicate a past event, I use simple past: Today I go to the milk bar; yesterday I went to the bakery. But if I’m writing in past tense, then I can’t just use simple past, and need to show another step backwards: Yesterday I went to the milk bar; the day before I had gone to the bakery. Should be simple, right?

    I remember someone saying to me when I first started taking writing seriously that you should never use “had had”, that the second had was never needed. I know now that this was a stupid piece of advice. Even then it felt wrong, and so when I wrote my fledgling stories I would contract the first one and use I’d or she’d or whatever, just because I could tell instinctively that I really did need both verbs, but people tended to let me keep the two verbs. Perhaps where this advice stemmed from — or at least should have stemmed from — is that when you segue into past perfect, which indicates a second step back in time, you only have to use the had the first one or two times and then can slip into simple past tense. Simple past is much more direct. Too many “hads” bog down a sentence. Pace stagnates when it should be racing. Of course the trick is to signal clearly to the reader when you are returning to the “now” of the story, whether it’s in present or past tense.

    But the problem I see often in student work is use of past perfect when simple past will do. This is usually because a student is writing in present tense and so should use simple past for past events, but I think they’re so used to writing in past tense that they take that second step backwards when only one is necessary. They’ll also use past perfect when they really want present perfect (have gone, have fished, have eaten, have drunk). Obviously for some it’s tricky stuff. I’m lucky because it’s always come naturally to me. Sometimes I think it only affects them on paper — that they can handle tenses properly in speech, but this isn’t always the case. My tip, as with any problem when writing, to improve your tenses? Easy: read lots. Read widely. And pay attention to what the author is doing.

  32. Brad Johnston said,

    Brad’s “annoyance” is merely observation of Brookner’s penchant for repeatedly (1) putting the word ‘had’ in front of past tense verbs, (2) using ‘had been’ where ‘was’ and ‘were’ belong, and (3) trying to put ‘had’ in front of an irregular past tense verb and forcing the irregular past participle. A professional writer should know better (as should non-professional readers 🙂

    If any of you know Anita Brookner, you might send her the findings in my January 15 comment above and see what she says. A quote that may soon apply is, “If you think teaching an old dog a new trick is hard, try teaching an old dog an OLD trick”, i.e., something that should have been learned long ago: don’t put ‘had’ in front of past tense verbs. It’ll never happen. She’s too far gone. She’s out of reach. She likes to write them that way and you like to read them that way. So what? So nothing.

  33. Judith Winters said,

    but Brad! She’s ENGLiSH!!!

  34. Ramona McDaris said,

    No, we are not. Why would you assume that?

    BTW, Anita Brookner is past 80 now. Long live Anita Brookner!


  35. Brad Johnston said,

    We won’r teach THAT old dog any old tricks, will we?

    But some of you, I presume, are likely more amenable.

  36. Ramona McDaris said,

    Brad, we have been asked politely, but firmly, by the Moderator, to avoid the literary “food fight”. Anita Brookner is definitely NOT an “old dog”. How rude and disrespectful. And as much as you are entitled to your opinion of her, so are others. No more responses to you, Brad. You are only interested in arguing rather than enlightening. By the way, regarding the “new tricks” you hope to teach the “amenable ones”, it does beg the question…Who made you grammar king?

  37. Brad Johnston said,

    Let me walk you through it, Ramona. There is an old saying, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks”. In the course of my extensive inquiries into the use and misuse of ‘had’, I have found that authors, once their words are in print, are very defensive. That led to the variation, “You can’t teach an old dog an old trick”, an old trick being something they might have learned long ago but didn’t, e.g., grammar.

    I once read a book copyrighted in 2003. I wrote to the author. He replied that he has been writing novels for 50 years and no one ever criticized his grammar. I found his first novel, The Blackboard Jungle, c.1953, and he was doing it way back then. See for yourself. There are ‘had’s in front of past tense verbs, as well as the other two errors mentioned above. That’s just the way it is. I did not call Anita Brookner “an old dog” except in the context I have just described for you. Anyone who has 20+ books in print, or who has been writing novels for 50 years, is an “old dog” in the writing game and is not amenable to grammar suggestions.

    I certify that there is nothing food-fightish intended in anything written in this comment.

    I’ll be glad to answer your last question off-line, Ramona.

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    […] a lengthy digression that almost constitutes a novella-within-the-novel itself. And there’s Anita Brookner, whose novels are like still bodies of water with great depths to be […]

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    […] the Professor – Yoko Ogawa The Human Stain, Everyman – Philip Roth Hotel Du Lac – Anita Brookner By the Lake – John McGahern The Little Stranger – Sarah Waters Love and Summer – […]

  40. Lizzie Perry said,

    I think I’ve read almost all of them. I didn’t like the latest one, Strangers, nearly as well as the rest. My favorite is Falling Slowly.

  41. D Bronder said,

    I want to thank her for the many hours of pleasure I have had from her work.

    I have read all of her novels. And I went from them to her Art Criticism. She is my favorite living author.

    I especially enjoyed “Latecomers.” I hold her in deep respect. She has such a cultivated excellence in her writing, and in her person, I am sure, such humor, such pathos.

    Well done.

  42. Vel Burkowski said,

    Ms. Brookner is my favorite living author. I read and reread all of her titles. And yes, they do have a plot but these are mostly character-driven novels like those of Henry James. I just finished rereading “Incidents in the Rue Laugier.” It was fantastic. I especially like “Hotel du Lac,” “Providence,” and “A Misalliance.” She strings those sentences together with a most beautiful flair. Some people find her depressing: I read her when life seems unsavory. She puts things to right like a bracing cup of tea on a sludgy afternoon. Very English.

  43. viequesguys said,

    When I was a student at the Courtauld Institute of Art in London in the late ’70s I encountered Anita Brookner around the building quite a bit.–in the hallway, in the lunch room, etc. She was unfailingly polite, sometimes witty, but always reserved. I admired her from afar, and was not surprised when she began publishing her wonderful novels.

    • Roberta Rood said,

      This comment made my day – thanks so much!

  44. Secondhalf said,

    I have just finished Latecomers. It was about nothing except people and the general progress of their lives, but I found myself welling up at times – it was so moving.

    I read with interest all the comments re grammar – I can only assume that Brad is something of a pedant who has maybe taken a course in creative writing himself. He’s entitled to be as pedantic as he likes, of course, but he shouldn’t allow it to get in the way of his enjoyment of one of the most captivating writers of our time, whose style, I am sure, is totally original and free of shaping by others. The exchange amused me anyway – hopefully it was all in good humour.

    Latecomers is one of my favourites too. Her themes are repeated and repeated, and in some books they ‘take’ better than others. One or two of the books – I couldn’t say which right now – are a bit too thin. But others are unputdownable.

    • Roberta Rood said,

      Thanks for this. Among other things, your comment has served as a reminder that I’ve been intending to revisit Latecomers.

  45. Brad Johnston said,

    “Secondhalf” said about Brad’s earlier grammar point, “he shouldn’t allow it to get in the way of his enjoyment”. Please allow me to draw you an analogy.

    If you happen to talk to a soldier who is just back from Iraq or Afghanistan, every third will be fu**in’. (Will that get past the censors?). Their conversations are riddled with fu**in’ this and fu**in’ that. Hardly a sentence passes that does not include at least one — at least to another guy, which I am. Maybe for the girls it’s different. Does his affliction “get in the way of my enjoyment” of what he has to say? Yes, as a matter of fact, it does. Do I know what he means? Of course I do. Do I like it that way? No, I don’t. Will I sidle away from him at the first opportunity? Yes, I will.

    Anita Brookner has a similar spech impediment. (Are you still talking about her?) She thinks she should put the word ‘had’ in front of past tense verbs, where they don’t belong, ever; and when she tries to put ‘had’s in front of irregular past tense verbs, she forces the irregular past participle; and she likes to use ‘had been’ where ‘was’ and ‘were’ belong. Once in a while, such errors are OK but as much as she does it, I won’t continue.

    I just started a novel by a yourng man whose literary landscape is littered with so many ‘had’s I wrote to him and told him I won’t continue. He thanked me and said he will discuss it with his copy editor.

    For comparison, my standard test is to count the ‘had’s in the first 21 pages. The word ‘had’ appears 166 times in the first 21 pages of his novel, of which 77% are in error. The 77% is not a record but the 166 is a record, by quite some. Will I put up with that? No. Will I put up with Anita Brookner? No. If she ever gets a grip on what she should have learned in the sixth grade, I may try her again.


  46. rocky green said,

    nice to run across this, Brookner’s been a solitary pleasure for me.

  47. Susan Hoover said,

    I love Anita Brookner too. I just finished Altered States which I found in a second hand bookstore. I saved it for Christmas Day and the day after. What a pleasure to have a fresh Brookner to hand.

  48. Richard said,

    Read the interview in Novelists in interview by John Haffenden, published in 1985.
    In the interview Anita describes her roots and perception of herself vis a vis the English identity.
    She of course is English, by birth, but spiritually not so much, she says.
    To correct the writer here about her family’s history in England: Anita’s mother was born in England of Polish Jewish parents. Anita’s father was born in Poland having come to England when he was 16. He too was Jewish.
    All before World War I. The reference to her family fleeing the Nazis in World War II is incorrect. The family name was respelled to suggest a less German association due to anti-German sentiment in England following the first World War. Her family, however, did shelter many Jewish refugees in their house in Herne Hill during the second World War.

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