I am saddened by the passing of Anita Brookner. Over the years, my reading life has been greatly enriched by her novels. She wrote twenty-four of them; I’ve read some thirteen or fourteen. That sounds like a lot, but they are slender volumes, meticulously crafted. I’ve always admired her writing and her intellect; she possessed a large vocabulary which she deployed with pointillist precision.
As a writer for the Catholic Herald notes of Brookner, “her heroines and occasional heroes were people whom by and large life had passed by: their pleasures were small ones, and the great storms of passion were things that happened to other people.” This makes her characters sound somewhat dreary, but I think it would be more accurate to call most of them introverted, with a propensity for melancholy. At this point, one wants to assert hastily that they had rich inner lives. But if memory serves, that’s not always the case. In truth, memory is not serving me all that well at the moment, as I’ve not read anything by her since Strangers came out in 2009.
To my mind, Anita Brookner had always seemed a quintessentially English novelist. I’ll bet she’s got one of those distinguished British pedigrees that goes back several hundred years, thought I. Well she might – but not in Britain. Her parents were Polish Jews who emigrated in the early years of the 20th century. (I was genuinely surprised to learn this about her.) She was their only child.
Having earned a PhD in art history from London’s famed Courtauld Institute, Brookner went on to teach and write in that field. She wrote her first novel – A Start in Life, published here in 1981 as The Debut – when she was 53.
An interesting sidelight regarding Brookner’s time studying at the Courtauld is that one of her professors was a highly respected art historian who held the post of Surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures. His name was Anthony Blunt.
Ring a bell? Blunt was one of the Cambridge Spies, the most famous of which is probably Kim Philby. I’ve known for quite some time that Brookner studied art history under Blunt, but there’s a story concerning the two of them and a third individual that I’d never heard until I started looking for material for this post. It’s told by A.N. Wilson in the Daily Mail:
As a distinguished scholar at the Courtauld Institute in London, Britain’s foremost centre of art history studies, Anita Brookner worked with Anthony Blunt, the Keeper of the Queen’s pictures, who was later exposed as a traitor.
When one of their equally distinguished colleagues, Phoebe Pool, had a nervous breakdown and ended up in a mental hospital, Blunt asked Brookner to visit Pool regularly.
She did so happily, unaware Blunt was a Soviet agent, nor that he had used Pool — once an enthusiastic member of the Communist party — as a go-between to take messages to his Russian spymaster.
Every time Anita Brookner came back from the hospital after seeing Pool, Blunt would quiz her. How was Phoebe? Had she blurted out any names? Which names? The questions meant nothing to Brookner. She had no idea that the names Pool might have let slip could have belonged to spies.
It was only when, decades later, Blunt and the more minor figure of Pool were unmasked that she realised she had been a pawn in the Cold War. Brookner’s reactions were entirely typical. Yes, she was very angry, and went on being angry with Blunt to the end of her days.
She felt she had been ‘manipulated’ by him, and realised, going back over their conversations, that he had tried to enlist her as an agent.
Though one of the most intelligent women alive, she confessed that she had been ‘too stupid’ to realise what he was on about.
Wilson adds that despite feeling used and manipulated when the truth about Blunt became publicly known (in 1979), Brookner retained a degree of loyalty to her erstwhile mentor: “She owed her job as an art historian to Blunt, who admired her scholarship and her knowledge of 17th and 18th-century French paintings.”
Although Brookner’s fiction is usually been held in high esteem, there are some who feel that in later years, the scope of her novels became increasingly constricted. As Matt Schudel states in the Washington Post: “By the mid-1990s, some critics had become weary of what some called an attenuated, bloodless quality that seemed to owe too much to earlier styles.”
Attenuated? Bloodless? Not to this reader (nor to many others). Instead, I felt that with each new novel I was given the chance to examine a different facet of a beautiful and enigmatic jewel. The spell was cast every time. I was always grateful.
If you are new to the fiction of Anita Brookner, you should probably start with Hotel Du Lac. This is her Booker Prize winner, a justly cherished novel. I’d like to reread Latecomers; it’s the only Brookner title I’ve read that dealt specifically with Eastern European immigrants living in Britain. And I have yet to read her final fiction: At the Hairdresser’s, available in e-book format only.
Jonathan Yardley, formerly a writer and reviewer for The Washington Post Book World, used to run an occasional column called Second Reading, where he called attention to older titles that might be worth revisiting as well as current authors who might be unjustly neglected. It was a marvelous feature. My favorite of all those columns was ostensibly about Isabel Colegate’s The Shooting Party, but Yardley ended up writing about five additional authors as well, all women. Anita Brookner was one of them, as well as two other favorites of mine (in addition to Colegate): the Penelope’s, Fitzgerald and Lively. (Yardley’s ‘Second Reading’ pieces are collected in a book of the same name.)