A Start in Life (1981), Providence (1982), A Misalliance (1987), Jonathan Cape Ltd
Anita Brookner books are a rather odd mix of intellect, literature and Harlequin Romance, but without the happy ending. Reader friends classified her books as well written but depressing(1), or as "all the same". But “all” is a multitude; after writing her first novel, A Start in Life, at age 53, Brookner published annually for almost 30 years.
"All the same": the general plot
A single woman, intellectual, cultured, good at her job but unlucky in love, pours herself into a romantic endeavor with a man that inevitably doesn’t work out. The man appreciates her as a colleague, friend or maybe even more, but doesn’t fall madly in love with her, or even treat her very well. In one would-be-funny-if-not-so-sad scene in Providence, Kitty Maule spends days painstakingly planning and preparing a meal for her date, who finally shows up hours late, plops down and eats whatever burned food is left, then falls asleep, oblivious to the pain he’s caused.(2)
So why read?
I couldn't resist the opening of A Start in Life: “Dr Weiss, at forty, knew that her life had been ruined by literature.” What's more, Weiss is working on a scholarly book called Women in Balzac’s Novels, wherein she explores the tragic love life of Eugénie Grandet. Other works referenced include Anna Karenina, and one of my favorite poems, Auden's Au Musée des Beaux Arts.
I was equally enticed by the references in Providence to the 19th century French novel Adolphe, by Benjamin Constant, which Kitty Maule teaches to her university class, foreshadowing her doomed hopes for love.
In A Misalliance, art instead of literature is the backdrop. Blanche Vernon, whose husband Bertie has left her for a younger, more “fun” woman, visits the National Gallery in London several times a week, and is haunted by a painting of nymphs who seem to be mocking her: “…she always felt slightly reduced by the art of the past, rebuked for her mildness, scorned for her seriousness.”
Blanche asks her friend Patrick why men throw it all away for some women and not for others? "It is simply that some women make one restless. Others one knows will always be there to come home to. It is as simple as that,” he responds.(2)
Patrick used to love Blanche, and she thinks “…if she had married him she would certainly still be married to him, since he tended to read the same kind of fiction as she did.”
Do you agree with Blanche that couples who read the same fiction stay together longer? Do you have any examples?!
Reading these novels during the lockdown was strangely relaxing and enjoyable.
(1) (Brookner) "People say that I am always serious and depressing, but it seems to me that the English are never serious—they are flippant, complacent, ineffable, but never serious, which is sometimes maddening."
(2) Brookner received several proposals of marriage, but rejected all of them saying men were "people with their own agenda, who think you might be fitted in if they lop off certain parts. You can see them coming a mile off."
Above footnotes from The Paris Review no. 98. (Only part of the article available)