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 late and run honorably. Honor is a key concept in Brookner’s ethics—Plato’s “Honor is the highest good” recurs in A Misalliance—for her favorites lose the race not only because they had no chance to learn the knack of living, but because they are committed, whether they wish it or not, to honorable behavior. This is what makes it seem at times as though in the Brooknerian world there is only a choice between virtuous failure and deceitful success; but there are so many variations on the idea, and wittily composed backgrounds—and besides, it enables Anita Brookner to wield a bracingly sharp knife on the kind of person she dislikes.
Brookner is unfashionable—shocking, even—in placing romantic love at the center of her plots; or rather, not romantic love, but true love. Domestic love. As a historian of French Romanticism she knows the subject well; but what her women want is not “extravagant displays of passion, the grand affair, the world well lost for love.” Rather, “the simplicity of routine. An evening walk, arm in arm, in fine weather. A game of cards. Time for idle talk. Preparing a meal together.” Whether her heroines have intellectual occupations, or none, they are not able, or not dishonest enough, to find their lives alone satisfactory. The narrator of her seventh novel, A Friend from England, who tries it on, is rather cruelly unmasked. She has wanted to make sure of avoiding pain, of running with the hares, and so espouses a philosophy of self-sufficiency; this is brave but, as she finds out, not honest.
Brookner is not particularly inclined to blame men for the state of affairs, though she has some extremely wicked men characters—in fact hardly any that one could warm to, before Latecomers. The sharp knife is really out for a certain kind of woman, a certain kind of “femininity.” As Edith, again, says:
“I’m not talking about the feminists. I can understand their position, although I’m not all that sympathetic to it. I’m talking about the ultrafeminine. I’m talking about the complacent consumers of men with their complicated but unwritten rules of what is due to them. Treats. Indulgences. Privileges…. The cult of themselves. Such women strike me as dishonourable. And terrifying.”
The first four novels form a group, their heroines all in one way or another displaced persons, standing baffled on the edge of things. Ruth Weiss in A Start in Life (watch Brookner’s names) is a Balzac specialist. Literary preoccupations are often a reference point; Ruth broods over Eugénie Grandet, who so humbly said, “Je suis trop laide, il ne fera pas attention à moi.” Eugénie’s failure to be loved, Ruth thinks, might be traced back to her parents. Her own are a lightweight, posing couple of Viennese refugees who leave their daughter’s upbringing to a black-clad grandmother (Brookner heroines tend to have no brothers or sisters). Ruth therefore is someone who assumes responsibilities automatically; in her college common room it is she who buys the milk and sugar for tea. But her nurse once told her that Cinderella did go to the ball; and Dr. Weiss does, very nearly, escape the family trap. Nearly; not quite, of course. She is called home to care for her father, and she does not rebel. This start in life comes to an early end.
Unlike most London novels, which are usually set in converted Kentish Town cottages with stripped pine dressers, Brookner’s inhabit a world of “mansion flats” in Maida Vale or St. John’s Wood, of furniture in dark woods “which looked as though they had absorbed the blood of horses,” of flock wallpapers and brooding dining rooms, wilting flowers and family photographs and epergnes and silver cake stands, of streets without shops where stout foreign-born widows walk small dogs on long gray afternoons. Brookner is an immaculate detailer of background and décor, clothes and meals. Kitty Maule in her second novel, Providence, is immaculate too, perfectly dressed because her grandmother is a French dressmaker; but there is something about immaculacy which bodes no good for Brookner women (though jeans, on the other hand, are for “gallant lady tourists” who have taken up selfimprovement). Kitty, who never knew her English father, pines for Englishness, sloppiness, not having to make an effort. Knowing the ropes instinctively. “I should call her well-bred,” says an acquaintance. “The natives, after all, don’t have to bother.”
Providence—Providence being what one trusts to, in Kitty’s case without success—is again much enriched by a central literary allusion. Kitty takes her students through the text of Benjamin Constant’s Adolphe, through Adolphe’s realization that by breaking his mistress’s heart he has killed his own: “I was free indeed, I was no longer loved; I was a stranger to the rest of the world.” The potency of the book, she tells her students, comes from the juxtaposition of dry language and passionate feeling. “Even if the despair is total, the control remains,” she says. “This is very elegant, very important.” And this is true of Providence, of all Brookner’s novels. As in Adolphe, Kitty’s heart is broken, quite definitely and in the Romantic tradition, but passion is drily controlled. Yet again it is this control, this matter of immaculacy and good breeding, that seems to disqualify the Brookner heroine.
Brookner’s morality is, in a sense, a question of manners; the hares that win the race have appalling manners, appalling enough to destroy the polite. The man who hurts Kitty in Providence is a dreadful booby with a bafflingly bland manner, a factitious interest in French cathedrals, and a mysterious sorrow which, it seems, excuses everything. But Brookner’s stare at his lover, a student of Kitty’s, is even beadier. At their seminars
she was so extremely beautiful that it seemed a concession for her to have written anything at all…. She had long pre-Raphaelite tendrils of beige hair with which she played throughout the seminar, drawing them back briskly behind her neck as if in preparation for some sort of announcement, or winding a lock round and round her fingers and across her lips, her immense eyelids lowered in obviously meaningful reminiscence.
Her contributions to the seminars on Adolphe and Romanticism, on the lines of “I think it’s boring,” are received with deference by everyone. So it is with Alix in Look at Me, who dazzles orphan Fanny with her laugh and her splendid teeth and her bouts of raillery—everyone does look at her. She has the kind of marriage that needs an audience for arch performances; Alix transfixes a room with crucial discussions of how she should wear her hair; worse—for she can cook very little—she talks of “my spaghetti.” “You must come and have some of my spaghetti.” Oh, I should be afraid to let Dr. Brookner into my kitchen. What her characters cook, and eat, is an even more essential clue to them than what they wear and decorate their flats with.
Latecomers is prefigured by Family and Friends, which opens out the themes into a history of a whole family, foreign-born and settled in England. There are four siblings, ruled, benignly, by a matriarch; the pattern of their reactions to the weight of the family is traced, the way roles—dutiful or rebellious—are divided out, the kinds of self-deception chosen. Blanche, in A Misalliance, does not deal in delusion; this is the most focused study of controlled loneliness of them all. An impatient reader might want to know—why this extravagant moping, especially for a husband tasteless enough to leave Blanche for someone called Mousie? Brookner’s point is just that some people are not able to be other than they are: are not adaptable, cannot diversify, do not recover, will not be fobbed off. Insofar as change happens to these characters, it means a falling away of innocence or hopefulness.
This is where Latecomers differs from the novels that lead up to it and why it is, I believe, the best she has written. It was perhaps time for Brookner to come to the end of themes of losers and winners, and draw characters who—however guardedly, imperceptibly—find ways of living on in despite of early damage. Many of Brookner’s characters are in some sense orphans; in Latecomers Thomas Hartmann and Thomas Fibich are so literally. Hartmann’s parents were driven off one day, still smiling; Fibich’s put him on a train to England and turned away. Hartmann was twelve years old, Fibich seven; Hartmann from Munich, Fibich from Berlin. Through the wretched first years in England, Hartmann protects the younger boy; after school they set up in business together, printing humorously insulting birthday cards that make them modestly prosperous. They take flats in the same block, and with their wives live as a foursome.
This is brotherhood. The two men are quite different; Hartmann, whose tragedy came later in his childhood, chooses urbanity and small, sensual pleasures; his project is damage limitation. He takes a sleeping pill every night and refuses to have bad dreams; his motto might be one that teases Fanny in Look at Me—“Glissez, mortels; n’appuyez pas.” Usually Brookner’s characters who choose to skate over thin ice are dishonorable; Hartmann is a good man, he loves Fibich. Fibich is tortured by the past, and even more by the lack of it, by the blotting out of all early memories. But—“It is over,” Hartmann will say to Fibich. “On his face, when he spoke these words, there would pass, unknown to himself, an air of great weariness that was at odds with his dismissal of times long gone.”
Their wives, again, have grown up “without true instruction, without the saws and homilies, the customs and idiosyncrasies, that, for children, constitute a philosophy”; both also reconstruct their lives in opposite ways. They are paired off like two sets of siblings, Hartmann with bustling Yvette and Fibich with melancholy Christine. Yvette is a wonderful character, the “look-at-me” woman drawn with greatest affection, for she is kind and cooks well.
She still entered a room with a sort of pre-emptive bustle, as if drawing on herself the attention of a crowd: she always assumed an audience, and frequently got one. She liked to imagine people saying “Who is she? Who is that beautifully groomed woman with the blonde hair?”
Hartmann finds her so entertainingly ridiculous that he marries her. But a certain expression of blankness comes over Yvette’s face from time to time, which the other three recognize with pity. Orphaned daughter of a traitor shot by the French Resistance, her choice is to make a fairy tale out of her childhood. And Christine, child of absentee parents, gravitates toward Fibich because they share the same terror of life. Latecomers takes these four, with the two children they have, right through until the beginning of old age.
“Look! We have come through,” is what Hartmann says to himself from time to time; and to Fibich,
You are not a survivor. You are a latecomer, like me. Like Yvette, for that matter. You had a bad start. Why go back to the beginning?
But there is no facile optimism about coming through. Fibich knows that
…his task as a man was…to bring into completion the ragged fragments of a destiny of which he felt himself to be the most lamentable, the most fallible of elements….
He longed to walk a foreign street and be recognized. He imagined it, the start of wonder on an elderly person’s face. Is it you, Fibich’s boy? You used to play with my children.
The ordeals he undertakes in search of the lost fragments have only partial success; and his marriage to Christine, though the only one possible for either of them, is rather a sad one.
The story of the growing up of the children of each couple, Marianne Hartmann and Toto Fibich, has unexpected twists, echoes of the hare and tortoise theme, and they are left at the end of the book with possibilities for future happiness just left open. Toto is a changeling to his timid parents, quiet Marianne equally astonishing to hers; they may turn out to be latecomers too. Families, in Brookner’s other books, are usually something that happened in the past of her characters, and to their detriment. Here the growth of a family is followed; not just the growth of Toto and Marianne, characters who this time have their own impetus quite apart from their parents’, but the family that Hartmann and Fibich and Yvette and Christine form in the face of exile. This is reminiscent of the group of orphaned children from Theresienstadt who were brought to England and survived, parents to each other.
Hartmann grows old pensively, Yvette gallantly, Christine quietly. Fibich, over sixty years old, weeps over the grilled sole in a restaurant with Hartmann, and begins to mend. He has been back to Berlin, looking through streets and parks and suburbs, and leaving behind some survivor’s guilt. “Wrong start, wrong finish,” Blanche’s summing-up in A Misalliance, may not be the last word. Enclosed with a memoir of his start in life Fibich places a letter for his son:
“Your grandfather’s name was Manfred. Your grandmother was Rosa. She was very beautiful. You will read all about them in the notebook….
Do you remember that poem I used to read you night after night, in an attempt to get you to sleep? Do you remember “battle’s magnificently stern array”? I was never able to capture that spirit myself. Some battles, however, are fought in the mind, and sometimes won there.”
Anita Desai’s Baumgartner’s Bombay also deals with expatriation and the distant consequence of genocide; for, as in Latecomers, the horror takes place off stage and the central character is a second-generation victim. Desai is half-Indian, half-German; in her books, as in Brookner’s, many of the characters live with a sense of unease and displacement. Deven, in In Custody, struggles for his literary ideals against small-town academia and an accusing wife; Nanda Kaul in Fire on the Mountain has retreated from all commitments to an isolated hill station; in Clear Light of Day a fragmented family is followed over the years, caught between an Anglicized literary culture and a background of decay and dust and inertia. Threatening her characters is always this sense of entrapment and paralysis, and some of them defy it; but Baumgartner’s Bombay is relentlessly dark.
Baumgartner is a more thoroughly displaced person than Anglicized Indians, and more solitary, for Desai’s Indian characters are still tied to family and community, however irksomely. She has drawn on her dual nationality to write on a subject new, I think, to English fiction—the experience of Jewish refugees in India. Hugo Baumgartner grows up in prewar Berlin, only child of a distant father and frightened mother. From the start he knows he is different, his parents are different. His father’s business begins to dwindle; one night the word JUDE is scrawled in red paint across his shop window. Then he is picked up by men in brown shirts, and, released after a fortnight in Dachau, cannot speak or stop shaking. Mother and child come back one day to find him with his head in the gas oven.
Hugo is sent away to India, to learn the timber business and prepare a home for his mother. He writes back of snake-charmers and tropical flowers, not bewilderment and overcrowding and malaria. When war breaks out, just before he is taken to a British internment camp as an enemy alien, his last letter to her returns, stamped Adresse Unbekannt. The odd wartime world of the camp, in which both Jews and Nazis are herded together, is made more bizarre by the juxtaposition of Indian poverty glimpsed through the barbed wire.
But the camp at least imposes some kind of order; afterward, Baumgartner is released into the chaos of rioting Calcutta. Waiting for him is his mail, a bunch of postcards signed “Mutti”; the last is dated February 1941. Over the postwar years, Baumgartner gradually drifts down through Indian society to settle, like sediment, somewhere near the bottom, in a dark room invaded by the sounds of radios, quarreling voices, machinery. He begs scraps for his cats and visits his one friend, Lotte, a fellow survivor who has been showgirl and mistress to an Indian businessman.
In the end Baumgartner is defeated by a German, by a new kind of evil. Out of kindness and nostalgia he befriends a stupefied blond hippie. The boy has burned corpses in Benares, eaten human flesh, sold cannabis on the steps of a mosque, been robbed by a homosexual Nepalese, lashed himself raw in religious processions, smuggled opium on camel-back, lived with lepers on a rubbish tip, and fought with stray dogs for scraps. Everything menacing and degraded in Indian life has moved into the empty drugged spaces of his brain; he is a true descendant of those who destroyed Baumgartner’s family. And Baumgartner still has in his room dusty silver trophies won on the Bombay racecourse, valuable enough to buy drugs with, worth killing for. After his murder all Lotte finds of his possessions is the pile of postcards from Germany, each stamped with its camp number. Moving to and fro over the years, Desai evokes a European sickness and an Indian sickness, until they combine like toxic chemicals; and while Latecomers is the most reconciliatory of Brookner’s books, Baumgartner’s Bombay is the most pessimistic, but perhaps the most powerful, of Desai’s.
June 1, 1989