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 from work. But very soon Freddie Lytton puts an end to this modestly idyllic interlude. Freddie is a prewar friend and contemporary of Hughie’s, a rich, influential businessman who has been through a humiliating divorce. He wants to marry docile Harriet, and Merle encourages her to accept him. “Her heart broke when she thought of the girl on her honeymoon, and of her disappointment. But there was no help for it.” Merle is exhausted by her struggle to keep the family afloat. Now she and Hughie can afford to retire to a flat in Brighton, and there they gently flourish.
Harriet too retires.
She liked Freddie, who was more of a father than her father had ever been. Her marriage seemed to her like a form of honourable retirement, with pleasant amenities to which she had previously had no access: the opera, the ballet. They talked objectively, on interesting topics. Feelings were rarely discussed. Nothing was expected of her except that she be reasonable and decorative. She had no trouble in being either. He, in his silent way, seemed devoted to her. He was an ideal husband.
Except in bed, where she dreads his clumsy aggression. His friends belong to her parents’ generation. Brookner describes one boring specimen couple who dine on Harriet’s impeccable daube, but could not possibly become her friends. Pamela and Mary have both married and moved out of London. The group has dispersed, except for an occasional reunion lunch.
Harriet makes no new friends and the only old one left to her is offhand, self-absorbed Tessa, who becomes pregnant by a glamorous television journalist and forces him to marry her. Jack Peckham is a rotten husband. He is mostly abroad, but even in London he keeps his bachelor flat and rarely spends a whole night with his wife. The first time Harriet sees him she recognizes the hitherto faceless lover she dreams about at night. This coup de foudre is perhaps not quite convincing; on the other hand Harriet’s refusal to follow it up, even after Tessa’s death, is in line with her character—a blend of passivity, decency, scruple, and timidity. Her retreat from life expresses itself in recurring visions of sunlight falling on an “undisturbed bed” in an empty room, and in her appetite for sleep—she is always having siestas: at one point she tells Freddie that she needs so much sleep that perhaps she should never have married.
Still, to Freddie’s dismay, she becomes pregnant. A daughter is born, Imogen turns into a child of outstanding beauty, heartless, fearless, predatory, and demanding. Harriet adores and spoils her. Tessa’s daughter Lizzie is plain, reserved, intelligent, and stoical, and Tessa neglects her: she is busy having her revenge on Jack by leading a promiscuous life. Harriet and her nanny practically take over Lizzie, but the child never returns the affection they try to give her. The two little girls hate each other. Imogen is beastly to Lizzie, and Lizzie bears it.
When Tessa dies of cancer, Jack removes Lizzie from Harriet’s orbit and farms her out to his secretary-cum-mistress. Both girls go to the same boarding school. Lizzie works hard and wins a place at Oxford: Imogen persuades her father to find her a glamorous job in the city. She has never loved her parents. Now she despises them. Harriet is grateful to be allowed to help her tidy the flat they have made for her on the top floor.
Freddie meanwhile is growing heavier, more decrepit, and more repulsive. After a couple of minor strokes he insists on taking a furnished flat near a fashionable clinic on Lake Geneva so that he can have regular treatments. The Lyttons spend more and more time in bland La Tour de Peilz. With no house to run and none of Freddie’s friends to entertain, Harriet’s days are even emptier than they were in London, and she pines for Imogen. When Imogen is killed in a motor accident, Harriet’s raison d’être shatters. Freddie begins his final move toward death: it makes little difference to Harriet when he arrives at his destination. She never goes back to London. But one day she writes to Lizzie and asks her to stay. The elegantly constructed novel opens with Harriet’s letter of invitation and ends with Lizzie’s visit, which is successful in a gingerly way and outwardly as uneventful as everything else.
There is nothing so novelistic as a real rapprochement between Harriet and Lizzie, let alone a suggestion that Lizzie will be a substitute daughter. Still, the ending could be called upbeat, though it has a sardonic twist; Harriet knows she never had her daughter’s confidence but believes that Lizzie did. In fact the girls met only once after they left school: that was when Imogen staggered into Lizzie’s flat, bleeding from an abortion. Lizzie wiped up the blood and never saw Imogen again. But when Harriet asks whether Imogen was happy and whether she loved her Lizzie answers yes. Lizzie is addicted to truth, so now she has “tears of outrage in her own eyes. But it was herself she despised, not for the lie, but for the difficulty it caused her.” Harriet, on the other hand, is made happy by it: she becomes able to visualize Imogen’s smiling face. “Sinking on to the sofa she let the tears rain down. Never to lack for company again. All will be as before, she thought, as she wept in gratitude. When my little girl was young.”
Surely there is a hint of authorial condemnation in the mawkish last words? Brookner in her own cool voice would never talk about “my little girl.” Besides, there is deprecation in the novel’s very title, taken from Henry James’s “Madame de Mauves”: “She strikes me as a person who is begging off from full knowledge,—who has struck a truce with painful truth, and is trying awhile the experiment of living with closed eyes.” Brookner uses the passage as an epigraph for her own novel, whose heroine—in the sense of being the approved character—is not Harriet, but dour, stoical, clear-sighted, uncompromising Lizzie. Still, the novel is Harriet’s story.
Reviewing A Closed Eye in The New York Times, Michiko Kakutani sounded outraged at Brookner’s choice of such a “passive, snivelling creature” (actually Harriet never snivels and always behaves as impeccably as she cooks). She asks why Harriet “doesn’t get a job, go to the movies, visit museums, make new friends or at least develop some interesting hobbies.” It’s a wonder she doesn’t suggest a female consciousness-raising group. Harriet doesn’t do these things because Brookner isn’t writing the kind of novel Kakutani would like her to, i.e., one in which the characters are not “predetermined by their temperaments, a fact that precludes the possibility of change and transcendence, the very things that can make life and fiction so surprising.” To find life regularly surprising you need a temperament and Weltanschauung other than Brookner’s. They are not mandatory for a novelist, though: marvelous novels in great variety have been written from what Kakutani calls a “cruel Darwinian” point of view: Wuthering Heights, for instance; or Die Buddenbrooks; or Eugénie Grandet, another novel about a lonely, dutiful woman; or Oblomov, chronicling the uneventful life of its lethargic hero. All these are about people who cannot change, and are doomed by their temperament.
It is not that Brookner can’t manage surprise: when the Lyttons return to London from La Tour de Peilz and the housekeeper tells them that Imogen has been killed that very day, the scene carries as much shock as anyone could want. But Brookner’s heroines try to ward off surprise, shock, and emotion by a kind of voluntary hibernation. Harriet does it through docility and retreat into sleep, and Lizzie, more deliberately, by means of a program of exclusions:
This seemed to her the best way, the safest way; friends were a burden for which she had neither the time nor the inclination. Her own silence, her own solitude seemed to her entirely preferable. It was with relief that she entered the empty flat in the evenings; after eating her yoghourt and her apple she was free to read or to write in her diary…. By concentrating on the mechanics of the day, plotting her way from one hour to the next, eating, in so far as possible, the same food at the same time, she managed to outwit an anxiety which had been in place as long as she could remember. She supposed that this was due to her rootlessness.
Harriet too, of course, is rootless, owing to her déclassé upbringing. The difference between the two women is that Harriet feels a melancholy regret—even anguish, sometimes—for what she passes up, whereas Lizzie bangs the door on it. We are told that Lizzie has a boyfriend (on a study trip to the States at the time of her Swiss holiday); but it is hard to believe in him.
A Closed Eye can be, and has been, read as the condemnation of a social code that sells women—because that is really what happens to Harriet—into a life of decorative dependence and boredom. In fact, Harriet is something of an anachronism owing to her semi-furtive upbringing in the little room behind the shop; most English-women who married in the early Sixties had both more experience before and more freedom after marriage. As for Lizzie, a generation younger, she is completely independent and has a good job in a publishing firm where she is appreciated even though she keeps aloof from her colleagues. The problem with both of them—and with Freddie, too, although he does not come into such full focus—is not social, not even psychological, but existential: a matter of futility, desolation, withdrawal.
Harriet, in her empty drawingroom, her morning duties discharged, the house silent in the absence of Miss Wetherby [the governess-turned-housekeeper] and her dog, absent, as was Freddy, on exercises of their own, thought back with distaste on her life, which now seemed to have been lost through inanition. Suddenly there was nothing for her to do. Freddy ate lunch out, so she made do with a sandwich. She could have taken a long walk, for in the early days of her marriage she had keenly regretted her lost liberty [she means only the liberty to go for walks] but now that she was older she preferred to stay indoors and look out of the window. There was little to see in the quiet square: few people passed, and if she saw anyone she knew, she retreated instinctively.
It is a kind of white depression, and Brookner’s aloof, factual account of it is numbing.
Still, A Closed Eye does have its Jane Austen side, because Brookner is a witty and ironic observer of a society she peoples with sharply described characters: the Blakemores, almost raffish and wholly pathetic; Tessa, confidently upper-middle-class, erratic, noisy, and doomed; Imogen’s easygoing young South African nanny; the lugubrious retired governess who takes her place and tames Imogen with buns and TV; and absurd Monsieur Papineau, a sweet-natured retired Swiss diplomat with a mother complex, overzealous to befriend Harriet at La Tour de Peilz, and yet indispensable to her. Some of these are affectionately seen.
Brookner has a particular knack for dealing with the sphere where society and locality overlap. She is and always has been a topographer of London who pinpoints the psyche of each individual quartier as she walks her characters through it or settles them in some wickedly specified abode. She evokes debonair Brighton with its bogus sophistication, and the tidy resorts of Lake Geneva, bathed in milky light and somnolent with chronic ennui. She is also brilliant at drawing out and interpreting the language of food and clothes. One gets to know the Lyttons’ safe and soigné menus: watercress soup, cold salmon, cold chicken, the daube for guests, and for the Blakemores, up from Brighton for the day, “cheese soufflé, with a green salad, and caramelized oranges to follow.” Harriet’s hair and clothes are always “immaculately” cut—immaculate a synonym for virgin?—and when she takes Imogen shopping “fine clothes were a solace [my italics] to them both.”
Brookner’s specificity makes her entertaining. The originality of her perceptions and the pain of her insights are modestly but not impenetrably veiled in unemotional diction and sedate, graceful phrasing—a distinguished performance. She is an art historian specializing in eighteenth and early nineteenth-century French art, and her writing recalls—deliberately or not—the elegant cruelty of certain French novels of the period. Her own novel ends with Lizzie helping Harriet to translate a passage from Stendhal.
May 14, 1992