Twenty years ago the art historian Anita Brookner was Slade Professor at Cambridge, author of a book on Watteau and then, within a few years, of books on Greuze and on Jacques-Louis David. Her first novel, A Start in Life, came out only in 1981; and since then she has written one in each summer vacation, and collected two literary prizes and a television adaptation. Latecomers is her eighth novel.
“Her books are so English,” an American friend said to me; by “English” meaning, perhaps, reserved, fastidious, ironic. Certainly she makes some American women writers look disheveled and a little vulgar, like the particularly unpleasant woman who reappears in different guises in all her books. But to the English, Brookner essentially seems Continental, foreign; all her novels (like Anita Desai’s Baumgartner’s Bombay) are about exile. The families in them have attenuated roots in Vienna, Paris, somewhere unspecified further east; childhood holidays are recalled, not in Cromer or St. Ives, but Baden-Baden, Scheveningen, Vevey; they may or may not be Jewish, but Jewishness offers no background or support. It is not only the roots of nationality that are twisted, but family roots.
Families cast a large shadow over Brookner’s central characters; parents are frivolous or self-absorbed or in some other way essentially absent, and their children inherit only a weight of gravity. They—daughters, in most of the books—approach the world with scrupulosity and puzzlement and are no match for the opposite Brookner character type, who is confidently dishonest. The contest is between those who had to be adult even as children and those who remain children even though they are adult. The latter always win. Edith in Hotel du Lac writes popular novels in which the tortoise always outruns the hare:
“Now you will notice, Harold, that in my books it is the mouse-like unassuming girl who gets the hero, while the scornful temptress with whom he has had a stormy affair retreats baffled from the fray, never to return. The tortoise wins every time. This is a lie, of course,” she said, pleasantly, but with authority.
The real facts of life, she concludes, are too terrible for the kind of fiction she writes. Aesop, in any case, was obviously writing for the tortoise market—“hares have no time to read. They are too busy winning the game.”
Brookner has been faulted for her preoccupation with the hare/tortoise theme, for the meekness of her tortoise heroines, who tend to stand at windows staring out into the dusk. But her central argument is rethought each time, carried through each time with a felicitous cast of minor characters—the draughtsmanship in the corners of her novels is always stylish.
After the first four of the novels (which are the most emotionally charged) her theme broadens out, and then in Latecomers is transposed into quite a new key; the four characters there, two German Jewish refugees and their wives, neither win nor lose a race, rather they start …