So City Basement Books has closed. They had a row of Anita Brookners and I bought one of each title. There is a particular atmosphere that comes out of her books, smothering, bleak, enervating and honest -- relentlessly, calmly honest; each book is a single large unforgiving muscle of honesty that closes around you like an anaconda -- as if you're being drained by a vampire, a quiet and unobtrusive vampire that latches softly onto the back of your neck and gives you no trouble while it sucks; in fact it does not like you but its manners are very nice, and when it draws its head away and addresses you by name you notice that it has the French literary habit of speaking in aphorisms, near-aphorisms, and bits of jaded, graceful neatness.
Ruth avoided sentiment, for she had seen how easy it was to come by.
She did not realize that most men accept invitations to dinner simply in order to know where the next meal is coming from.
One of the books I bought was her first, A Start in Life. It seems typical of her contrariness that she would begin a fiction-writing career by telling you that you can be cursed by reading.
Dr Weiss, at forty, knew that her life had been ruined by literature.
And the character's life goes on to be so bleak and modest that although the first line might not be strictly true -- it wasn't only literature, but literature didn't help; there was also a terrible, passive trust -- you can't shake it off as a joke. She writes numerous funny lines but they are grim, not jokes. None of her funny lines are jokes.
She does not hobnob with the reader, does not condescend, does not write in an easy startling way, and if she writes about a woman, as she often does, and as she does in Life, then the woman will be quiet, humble, good, and plain. She will not be a role model, not a bold person, not a success. She will be unloved, wretched, miserable, self-contained. She will be brave, but her bravery will be neither recognised nor rewarded. She will not remove her glasses, untie her plait, and come to a happy ending. Quietness and modesty will be her undoing, they will leave her stranded. Confident, happy, brash people will take advantage of her. She will acknowledge that this is her own fault.
For moral fortitude, as Dr Weiss knew, but never told her students, was quite irrelevant in the conduct of one's life; it was better, or in any event, easier, to be engaging.
Nearly thirty years after Life was published in 1981 an interviewer would ask Brookner about Plato, and her answer would be the opinion of Dr Weiss.
Didn't Plato say the unexamined life is not worth living?
She gives the faintest smile. 'Plato could be wrong too. I think the unexamined life is much better. Much more comfortable.'
So you wish you had been…
'Blithe…' It rolls off her tongue, wrapped in longing. A lovely word, I say.
'It's an old-fashioned word. You don't hear it much.'
So you envy the blithe?
The journalist might have felt prompted by this, from 1986's A Misalliance
Bathed and dressed, Blanche took down from her shelves the Philebus of Plato and read that the life of pleasure must be mixed with reason and that the life of reason must be mixed with pleasure but that a third quality, to which both reason and pleasure look forward, must be the final ingredient of a good life. Realizing, with a slightly sinking heart, that given the choice she might have settled for a life of pleasure, she laid the book aside.
With Life the note is struck, the string is plucked, the reverberations will go on for decades, in book after book. A Start in Life is all plucked strings. Ah! you say when Anthea shows up. I recognise her! That's the Attractive and Confident Friend! The Ruthless Modern who buys the shop in Undue Influence appears for the first time, in embryo, under the name of Roddy. And oh, it's the Cruelly Truncated Escape to Paris that damages the young lead character of Leaving Home! The shrouded, stifling home life! The woman looking after her parents! And the timid female habit of giving the floor over to a forceful young man!
Richard draped the cat round his shoulders. Ruth and Miss Howe watched in fascination as he unleashed the full glory of his smile.
"He'll be all right, won't you old chap?" he said, bringing Tiger down like a scarf until he could rub his cheek on the cat's neck. Tiger was his slave. Miss Howe waited patiently until he rewarded her with a friendly pat on the shoulder.
This is humiliating to read -- this old woman waiting for a caress from a young man simply because he is handsome -- and it will be even more painful in later books when the young man is a careless nephew whose elderly relative is greedy for him and accepts his condescension as the price of his visits. Here in Life is the Brookner tone, fully formed already, immaculate, here is the Brookner language, her quality of being unowned, remote as a cat; here is her cool Proustian way of evaluating friendships.
Her insistent yet curiously uneasy physical presence inspired conflicting feelings in Ruth, who was not used to the idea that friends do not always please.
French writers play a role in this book but Proust is not mentioned. Ruth Weiss studies Balzac. Her life is stymied, worn down, sacrificed. Later the author will suggest that persisting with this kind of modest half-erased existence is a kind of unrecognized nobility. Your personality has betrayed you yet you are true to it, your interior knight bending the knee to your interior belle dame sans mercie.
And this is why I sojourn here,
Alone and palely loitering,
Though the sedge is wither'd from the lake,
And no birds sing.
All of the Brookner novels I've read could be prefaced with this Keats, and it would seem apt. Not always perfect, but apt.