Anita Brookner, born in London on July 16, 1928, the only child of middle-class Polish Jews, was educated at James Allen's Girls' School, King's College, London, and the Courtauld Institute, and first made her mark as an art historian. She spent three postgraduate years in Paris, her only extended time out of Britain, researching her dissertation on Jean-Baptiste Greuze. Her mentor, Anthony Blunt, himself a distinguished scholar of the work of Nicholas Poussin, encouraged her Francophile leanings. She ascended the academic ladder quickly, moving from the University of Reading (1959–64) to the Courtauld Institute, where she taught from 1964 until her retirement in 1988. Her tenure at the Courtauld was interrupted only by her appointment to the Slade Professorship at Cambridge (1967–8); she was the first woman to hold the position. Her distinguished work on eighteenth- and nineteenth-century French artists, particularly Greuze, David, and Ingres, and her considerable talents as an instructor earned Brookner a first-class reputation at the Courtauld and among generations of students, many of whom went on to hold major appointments at great museums and universities in the UK and abroad.
Challenged by a summer break in her schedule in 1981, Brookner decided to write a novel. The result, A Start in Life (1981), is the first of 24 published; she produced one a year until 1999 – the year 2000 broke the spell, but five more have appeared since 2001, the most recent, Strangers (2009). For her, writing fiction was not far removed from writing art history: both activities are exercises in problem solving. Intermittently, collections of her essays appear, mostly on French writers, painters, or philosophers, and she reviews fiction frequently for The Spectator. She lives quietly in an elegant flat in Chelsea, writing in another flat next door.
Brookner grew up in a secular Jewish household with parents who, according to her, were really not suited for child-rearing. Members of the extended family as well as refugees from Hitler's Continental atrocities frequented the Brookner household, but it was a quiet life. The effect on the young woman was telling: she has often talked about her feelings of isolation and alienation, and attributed them not only to her heritage but also to her choice of profession. As a Jew and as a woman she had two strikes against her in making her way in the world of Protestant white male privilege. Brookner pursued her graduate work and career path in the 1950s and 1960s, in the days before feminism had achieved at least some of its goals, and in an academic world of considerable bias and unpleasantness. Notably, though, Brookner has never complained or lamented her lot; nor does she see herself as a victim – quite the contrary.
Literature, both English and French, was another important influence on Brookner's development. Growing up, she read all of Dickens's novels and believed that the moral universe of his fiction was an existential reality: the realization that such was not the case was a profound ontological and intellectual shock, one whose repercussions reverberate not only in her life but in her fiction as well. Time and again the protagonists in her novels either fail to recognize that fact of life or they apprehend it too late to translate it into everyday life.
French literature – eighteenth- and nineteenth-century masters like Diderot, Stendhal, Constant, Baudelaire, and Zola – has influenced Brookner to such an extent that describing her books as “French novels” may be the most apt characterization. Not so much the substance of the masters – though in a number of cases that does matter, for example, Zola's concern with what she has called “the heroism of everyday life” (1971, 91), which resonates in her own fiction – as the evocative, chaste precision and purity of the style that filters into her novels. And the apparently antithetical, floral elements derived from Collette and Proust, which grace Brookner's prose, demonstrate her indebtedness to that Continental tradition of letters as well.
Another French element – existentialist philosophy – gives both structural backbone to characterization and a certain pervasive bleakness to Brookner's fiction; and another English element, Henry James, haunts her pages, not just the psychological insight and style of the Master, but the narrative trajectory he charted for Isabel Archer in The Portrait of a Lady, which might also be Brookner s: to tell the story of “a certain young woman affronting her destiny” (James 1908 p. xii). Brookner's women are not often so young, but nonetheless James's trajectory for Isabel is Brookner's for many of her characters.
Brookner is likely best known for her fourth novel, Hotel du Lac (1984), which established her reputation as a novelist. Her protagonist, a romance novelist named Edith Hope, has been sentenced to exile at a Swiss hotel for “an unfortunate lapse”: she left her fiance standing at the register office on their wedding day. After serving her sentence in the midst of a gallery of other women, Edith returns home, having rejected the marriage proposal of a very Jamesian gentleman, a little wiser for the experience. Edith is verymuch a sister to the protagonists of the three novels that preceded Hotel: a middle-aged woman with a divided soul and heritage, someone who has lived according to the dictates of an outmoded code; disappointed and alienated, but managing to soldier on. Edith is the savvy sister, though, a woman who has taken her suitor's injunction (“assume your own centrality”: 95) to heart, but not quite as he wished.
Hotel du Lac is in many ways the touchstone for all of Brookner's fiction. As other novels came out, each amplified and extended the basic concerns of that Booker Prize-winning novel – and in a style that is perhaps unrivaled in contemporary English prose fiction. The female portrait that is the subject sometimes became a double female portrait as in Brief Lives (1990), Falling Slowly (1998), and Leaving Home (2005); or a male portrait as in Lewis Percy (1989), The Next Big Thing (2002), and Strangers (2009). In other cases, the individual portrait became a group portrait of both women and men as in Family and Friends (1985) and A Family Romance (1993).
Brookner's most recent novel, Strangers, is the story of Paul Sturgis, a retired bank manager who dreams of escape from a sedate life. Two women disrupt things, one a middle-aged divorcee, the other an old girlfriend. The novel generated some familiar response with a number of critics complaining that Strangers is an altogether too familiar repetition of the novel she has been writing from the beginning. Her consistent concern with the existential dilemma created when a certain kind of person attempts to negotiate life without compromise in the contemporary world has produced fictions of elegant fugal variation on the subject.
Brookner has written an elegant, incisive portrait of a certain person, whether female or male, from the beginning. Her deepest and most sympathetic concern lies with chronicling the life story without illusion, without sentiment, without false comfort. The result is an elegant, often tragic, fiction of depth, dimension, and resonance.
SEE ALSO: James, Henry (AF)
- Understanding Anita Brookner. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press. (2002).
- The Genius of the Future: Studies in French Art Criticism: Diderot, Stendhal, Baudelaire, Zola, the Brothers Goncourt, Huysmans. London: Phaidon. (1971).
- Jacques-Louis David. London: Chatto and Windus. (1980).
- Hotel du Lac. London: Jonathan Cape. (1984).
- Family and Friends. London: Jonathan Cape. (1985).
- Lewis Percy. London: Jonathan Cape. (1989).
- Brief Lives. London: Jonathan Cape. (1990).
- A Family Romance. London: Jonathan Cape. (1993).
- A Private View. London: Jonathan Cape. (1994).
- Falling Slowly. London: Viking. (1998).
- The Next Big Thing. London: Viking. (2002).
- Leaving Home. London: Viking. (2005).
- Strangers. London: Random House. (2009).
- The Art of Fiction, No. 98: Anita Brookner. Paris Review, 104, 1-23. At www.theparisreview.org/media/2630_BROOKNER2.pdf, accessed Mar. 4, 2010. (1987).
- TheNovels and Tales of Henry James, vols. 3–4: The Portrait of a Lady. New York Edition. New York: Scribner's. (1908).
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