Thursday, February 11, 2016

Review of Leaving Home by Anita Brookner

“The only realistic ambition is to live in the present. And sometimes, quite often in fact, this is more than enough to keep one busy. Time, which was often squandered, must now be given over to the actual, the possible, and perhaps to that evanescent hope of a good outcome which never deserts one, and which should never be abandoned.” – Anita Brookner, “Leaving Home”

After mentioning Anita Brookner in my last two reviews, I thought there was something in me that wanted to read a Brookner Book, so I have just finished “Leaving Home.” I put “Brookner Book” in capital letters because her books certainly belong in their own genre. They are generally about a person to whom not much happens on the surface, but quite a lot happens in their heads and their cautiously buried hearts. If you find books that have almost no dialogue and no action difficult, then reading a Brookner Book will take a great exercise of will on your part. But, that being said, I am consistently surprised at how, even when I get impatient with all of the mental hand-wringing and inertia of her characters, I start to become increasingly worried for them as Brookner subtly shifts them into a crisis. You must take the word “crisis” with a grain of salt here because in a Brookner Book there will be no headstrong girl jumping off a wall (Austen’s “Mansfield Park”) or a girl with a near fatal fever (Austen’s “Sense & Sensibility”) to turn the plot on its head.

Brookner’s crises are more apt to come in the form of a dinner invitation that is unwelcome, but impossible to refuse. You might be seated next to an elderly man whose bread flies off the table and into your lap, unnoticed by everyone including the old man. You might realized, like Alex in E.M. Delafield’s  “Consequences,” that you are completely unprepared for adult life, you find yourself looking for that one event that will signal your arrival onto the adult stage, only to find “it” has really never “happened.” 

Brookner’s Emma, the protagonist of “Leaving Home,” is a classic Brookner character – a loner who sees other people doing the things of life – buying flats, getting married, having children, working – and can't really see how they go about getting all of that done or how they know how to do it. Emma tries to make a start on these things by leaving home, researching to write a book, even buying a flat. But she seems to be trying these activities on like you would a sweater that looks nice, but is incredibly itchy to wear.

When considering Brookner’s Emma, I think of a movie that really stars her best friend in the book, Franciose, and Emma is a side character – the nondescript friend. So what Brookner has done is to tell us the back story of that nondescript friend instead of the story of the dynamic star who falls in and out of love and is obligated to marry a wealthy family friend to save her ancestral home. It’s as though Brookner knows we’ve seen that movie of the dynamic star a hundred times, but asks “What about the woman who makes a fourth person at dinner, who will pretend she didn’t hear arguing downstairs, who doesn’t have many demands, who lets the star borrow her Paris flat, who lets bread fly into her lap, who says almost nothing at all? What is her life like?”

In “Leaving Home,” I think Brookner, like E.M. Delafiled, in “Consequences,” confronts one of the most important and potentially paralyzing questions of human life: “When are we grown up?” Whereas Delafield approaches the question with a lot of sturm un drang, Brookner approaches it very stealthily through a character who seems very boring and somewhat irritating, but who manages to reveal an almost mystical truth about always reaching toward an unknown mythical future of grown ups.

Brookner is now 87, and published her first novel at the age of 53 after she had already amassed accolades as a distinguished professor of art history at Cambridge and the Courtauld Institute of Art. She wrote an novel every year between 1981 and 2003 and she continues to write, for which her readers thank her. “Leaving Home” is one of her most recent novels.

Here is one of Brookner’s best quotes about her books, “I'm not very popular, because they're bleak and they're mournful and all the rest of it and I get censorious reviews. But I'm only writing fiction. I'm not making munitions, so I think it's acceptable.”

The painting by Harold Gilman is “Madeleine Knox” from the archives of the Tate Britain. Digital Copyright Tate Britain.

Leaving Home is in print and available from discerning bookshops. If they don't have it, how about asking them to order it just for you?

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