Still Life

A Closed Eye

by Anita Brookner
Random House, 263 pp., $21.00

In Anita Brookner’s bleak new novel a bleak little girl called Lizzie intends to be a writer, but not until she is forty.

I think that’s very wise,” said Harriet. “You’ll have to travel a lot, and get experience, and so on.”

Not really,” said Lizzie, her blush fading. “I shall get it all out of my head.”

A Closed Eye is the kind of novel Lizzie might write. Of course it is based on experience, as all novels are, but not on what Harriet means by experience—an accumulation of dramatic events and exotic backgrounds. When it was published in England last year one or two critics heaved sighs because Brookner seemed to be returning to the theme of her earliest novels: female loneliness. But why not? Cézanne kept on painting apples and pears and Mont Saint Victoire. He painted other subjects as well and Brookner has written about other subjects, even about men. Not that her art can be compared to Cézanne’s: she is not at all innovative in form or technique. The stock comparison is with Jane Austen (painting on a piece of ivory). It is misleading, because Jane Austen wrote about women in society, women who accept themselves as part of society, however uncomfortably placed in it they may be; whereas Brookner’s heroines are outside society, unable to believe they belong—even when they are married and rich, as Harriet comes to be in A Closed Eye.

The novel has no plot; it is just a CV. Harriet is born in 1939, the only child of a pair of good-looking, penniless bright young things called Hughie and Merle Blakemore. Hughie returns from the war a psychological wreck, unemployable. Merle rents a small shop with a flat above it in William Street, just off upmarket Knightsbridge, and sells “the kind of smart black dresses she herself liked to wear, and later…the dark greens and navies favoured by what she privately thought of as the old trouts in Pont Street.” The Blakemores just get by: but only because Merle manages to keep the rent down by suffering the attentions of their Lebanese landlord. When Harriet comes back from school Hughie makes toast for her in the little room behind the shop. She has one friend: the dashing Tessa Dodd, whose parents overlook Harriet’s unsuitably grown-up dresses—dresses that haven’t sold in her mother’s shop. Tessa’s two friends Pamela and Mary tolerate her, but leave her out of their giggly conversations about sex. They know, and she knows, that this subject is not for her. It is not Brookner’s best subject either: the only one that, for all her fastidiousness, drives her to an occasional banality like “that journey only two can share” to describe it.

When she leaves school Harriet gets a job in a bookshop and is happy, especially on the walk home when she feels fulfilled and free and at one with the crowd returning …

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