Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Paying my respects to Anita Brookner - a truly gifted author

I’ve always enjoyed reading about female outsiders on the periphery of society, often set apart by the impulse to question.  The novels of Anita Brookner and Jean Rhys formed a considerable backdrop to the world of my twenties so I was shocked and saddened to learn yesterday, on Facebook, of the death of one of my all-time favourite writers: Anita Brookner. She passed away last week on 10 March and, as the mother of a seven-week old infant, I admit I am slightly out-of-touch these days, so I was late in learning the news.

Anita Brookner (1928-2016)

My first introduction to Brookner’s universe occurred during my teens, in the town library of Carrick-on-Shannon, where I grew up. I chanced upon Providence (1982) on a shelf, opened a random page and was instantly hooked.  Some years later, in 1996, I wrote my MA thesis on Brookner at NUI Galway (then UCG), focusing on Romanticism and Existentialism in her novels and refuting claims, mostly made by male critics, that she wrote ‘romantic novels’ (Bayles dismissed Hotel du Lac (1993) as ‘Harlequin Romance for Highbrows’). Anita Brookner never complied with the conventions of the popular romance, such as fantasy resolution through fusion and marriage. I believe her work is intimately involved, however, with the modes of Romanticism which is characterized, instead, by fragmentation, and also with Existentialism, where separateness and alienation are central to her ‘poetics of loss’. In fact, a typical Brookner ending, with its raised expectations and ironic reversal, approximates more towards ‘anti-romance’. Many of her heroines are prompted, by the stark anti-romanticism of their realities, to re-evaluate expectations of people and the world around them. Often, they may start out looking to literary paradigms to answer their questions about life, then they gradually arrive at new insights about themselves and their environments. So, while 'happy endings' are scarce in her work, Brookner’s protagonists often move beyond delusion to a greater understanding; they are empowered to strive for authenticity in their lives.

Throughout her career, Brookner has been unflinchingly courageous in tackling tricky subjects without whitewashing the grittiness. She herself once wrote in the Times Literary Supplement ‘…there is a truth even more terrible than [we] suppose and it was discovered by certain members of the Romantic generation. The truth is this: reason does not work any better than myth.” Her novels are interested in subjectivity as it is constituted socially, culturally and psychologically. They offer us worlds where diverse themes are explored, such as family relationships, female friendships, bonds between men and women, power struggles, bonds of religion and bonds between life and the aesthetic realm. A joy to read on a linguistic level, as they are so elegantly crafted, they are also refreshingly honest; she does not shirk from the big themes of love, sex, isolation and loneliness, gender, ageing, myth vs ‘reality’ in an absurd universe. Brookner’s hesitancy to inscribe redemption can be taken as a counter-statement – one which exposes the repressive effects of romantic myth in Western culture and highlights how it can so easily worm its way into our lives. In an interview for The Paris Review in 1987 the novelist herself stated: “The true Romantic novel is about delayed happiness, and the pilgrimage you go through to reach that happiness.”

It is some years now since I read her work but, at one point, shortly after I wrote my thesis I was reading her constantly. Then, somewhere along my reading journey, I decided to take a break from her somewhat bleak, yet honest, worldvision and, in particular, from the too neat binary recognizable in some of her female characters: charismatic glamourpuss ('winner') is pitted against the introverted book worm ('loser'). This was one of the very few tics in her corpus that cloyed for me. The rest of the journey was magical and I drank in her prose and stylish syntactical choices, as well as the candour of her psychological insight. For my money, Hotel du Lac was over-hyped and some of her later novels surpassed it, but it has certainly become a deserved classic, and the Booker prize it garnered in 1984 was a rare moment during her long, prolific career, where critics shone a light upon her outstanding talent.

Thinking back to the many quiet moments of reading pleasure she afforded me also carries fond memories of a more carefree time in my life as a postgraduate student in the first flush of love with an ERASMUS exchange student from Belgium. So her passing has opened up more than literary reminiscences and also evoked a happy phase of research, enquiry and personal joy at a formative time in my life. There is much more that could be said about her oeuvre but limitations of time (see reference to new infant above!) and space demand that I keep this post brief and hope to continue the discussion another day. Anita Brookner did not believe in an absolute and, apparently, she chose not to have a funeral. Wherever she is, her literary legacy and the recollection of encountering and relishing her work will continue to occupy a unique place in my heart and mind. 

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