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Anita Brookner, Strangers – TLS

27/02/2009

“Objects that had started to die, living room pianos, clothes more than five or six years old, fashionable places that had begun to lose their lustre.” These were the things Walter Benjamin noticed the flâneur had an eye for, luring him onto the street in pursuit of anything off-key or out of date. In Anita Brookner’s latest novel, Strangers, (at 80 her prodigious work-rate shows no sign of letting up), Paul Sturgis is similarly drawn to the street and spends much of his time tramping pavements. Unlike the flâneur, though, he notices little of the world around him and what he does see, disappoints. Exasperated with London’s stony skies he cries out for more life. But as the twin poles of his existence are these featureless strolls and an empty flat, glum and oppressive as death’s waiting room, he has little chance of finding it, particularly when his head is full of ‘the next big thing’ (a phrase Brookner adapted from Henry James for a 2002 novel) – perhaps the only big thing in a lonely, uneventful life spent working in a bank. Always out of step with the living, Sturgis now feels poorly placed to die. But unlike Stendhal who had a relative at hand when he collapsed in the street, he will have to rely – and you can feel Brookner reaching for the cliché – on the kindness of strangers.

That life and death should come down to matters of etiquette is not unusual in Brookner. There are women writers who find freedom in bohemia, making themselves at home in no man’s land, but her novels insist on the wretchedness of those designated beyond the pale, “the disqualified”, as she calls them in Undue Influence. For these illegitimates, decorum – behaving in the approved manner – is not just a matter of form, but goes to the heart of one’s viability. And like Christina Stead (albeit a more fiery and political writer) she is unromantic about exile, sensing the disorders suffered by the unloved and unregarded.

Hers, admittedly, are strange outsiders – the white, well-to-do of Belgravia, Marylebone, Fulham or, in Sturgis’s case, South Kensington. It is only in a handful of her 28 novels that characters are identified as Jewish, connecting her typically bereft and inert figures to the legacy of the holocaust. Here, the only clues to Sturgis’s self-absorption, his “ineradicably solitary” habits, are a gloomy childhood that lingers in dreams, and the filial duty that scuppered his life: once steered to the bank by his father, he abandoned the study of art. Brookner, herself, did no such thing. She built a distinguished career as an art historian (Slade Professor at Cambridge, Reader at the Courtauld, Fellow at King’s College), but she was caught in the net of the past, telling the Paris Review: “I was brought up to look after my parents…They were transplanted and fragile people, an unhappy brood, and I felt I had to protect them. Indeed that is what they expected.”

R.B. Kitaj, The Autumn of Central Paris (after Walter Benjamin)

R.B. Kitaj, The Autumn of Central Paris (after Walter Benjamin)

In Sturgis’s case, obedience to the will of his parents has left him stripped of his own; his desires mere velleities, childishly wished for but rarely acted upon. And like a child, he is narcissistic: look at me! is the constant demand, even if it’s only muttered under the breath. There is one familial tie, Helena, a “pseudo-relative” whom he visits periodically, their relationship a Brooknerian mix of delicate consideration and power-play. Neither warms to the other and neither tells the truth about their meagre lives, but they maintain the association because it’s all they have. When she dies unexpectedly he casts around for companionship. But the candidates only confirm his stasis: a younger woman whose breezy superficiality and insensitive demands represent the intolerable future; and an old flame who originally rejected him as “too nice” – a character assassination that has stayed with him through the years – and who exposes the futility of going “back to the beginning”. He flits back and forth to France, trying to shake himself up, and the novel ends with him poised again to leave. Ultimately, though, it is not lack of opportunity that keeps Strugis “bounded in a nutshell”, but an unwillingness to see beyond himself, (he thinks of living “the life of the mind”, but even art turns him back upon himself).

There are moments when Brookner’s study of alienation and implausibility brings to mind the existentialists. As in Nathalie Sarraute’s Tropisms, inanimate objects grow human and menacing (the flat becomes “minatory”); and humans, machine-like, a collection of emptied-out gestures (“the same actions, performed at the same time, on similar days”). But despite her admiration for the European novel, her refusal of consolatory fictions (Brookner doesn’t do happy endings), and for all her pursuit of the marginalised, she remains wedded to the English tradition, to what Lorna Sage once called the “irresponsible innocence” of realist writing. Uninterested in the universal, however, with her characters’ refusal to find more room or better options for themselves, she cannot claim Stead’s achievement: that her obliquity made her ubiquitous.

In Stead’s novels the outsiders are often on the wrong side of history (on the side of the angels, that is), but in Brookner, too often people appear to exist outside history, untroubled by material questions or even the winds of change. “The times have been so unsettled” is a rare comment on the world out there (a reference to the upheavals of Paris 1968) in Incidents in the Rue Laugier. And, fatal in a realist frame, in Strangers there is the wrong kind of implausibility: Sturgis, an ex-banker, is ludicrously innocent in money matters, while women are talked about as “emancipated” or “modern”. All this wraps the narrative in the kind of anachronism that marks so much of Brookner’s fiction, and it is not of the kind a flâneur revels in. For her, there is no frisson in being out of the ordinary; performance is a sign of bad faith, not play; and freedom tends to overwhelm rather than liberate. Yet her cramped and doomy books are wracked by struggle – futile though it seems. The last words in Strangers are the modernist battle-cry, “Making it new”. But even as he raises this banner, Sturgis doubts whether his bid for the future is any more than an “airy notion of exile”: “this vision of his life in Paris had now dwindled almost to invisibility.”

This is a version of a review that appeared as  ‘Fragile People’ in the TLS, 27.2.2009.

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