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Having reviewed over 1200 books on this blog, I have now written two myself. Motherdarling is a story about a search for a missing Will which reveals long-hidden family secrets. The Kids of God is a thriller set in a dystopia ruled by fascist paramilitaries. Both are available as paperbacks and on Kindle through Amazon. I live in Canterbury, England. I lived for more than thirty years in Bedford. Having retired from teaching; I became a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Liminality. I achieved my PhD in 2019. I am now properly retired. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. Follow me on twitter: @daja57

Wednesday, 17 April 2019

"Brief lives" by Anita Brookner

A devastatingly sad book, told from the point of view of an old lady, a childless widow, about getting old. Fay's reminiscences are triggered by the death of an old acquaintance, Julia, with whose life Fay's intersected.

Julia is a wonderful character: an ex-actress, hugely manipulative but adored by her small group of devotees. Not one of them appears to be enjoying life. They are all purposeless, without dreams, without love, perhaps without hope, as they grow older. In the end age defeats even Julia.

This is a book about the old. The young are kept very much in the sidelines, although there is a meal at a restaurant near the end where the three old ladies watch the antics of the couples courting over their meals. But the men die young while the old linger. Thus we meet old ladies slowly declining again and again. There are many reflections on growing old:
  • “Maybe the virtue of growing older is that one is more stoical; one accepts the burden of life, knowing that the alternative is simply death, non-existence, non-feeling.” (C2)
  • “Growing old is so meaningless when there are no young people to watch.” (C4)
  • “She was now utterly indifferent to her surroundings, did not notice those sad odours, had become an old lady who wore thick stockings and wide shoes, she who had been so fastidious, so critical, so elegant in her modest way.” (C7)
Chapter one is by way of being a prologue, framing the reminiscences. The story goes back to the start in chapter two. 

There are regular hooks interposed in the story to tell you that something terrible is about to happen. This starts in the first paragraph of chapter one: “I never liked her, nor did she like me; strange, then, how we managed to keep up a sort of friendship for so long.” It continues throughout:
  • “But I was never destined for a happy ending, although I was so very happy at the beginning.” (C 2)
  • “I only learnt this much later, and even now I have to learn the lesson every day.” (C2)
  • "For a moment or two I sat in horror, knowing that love had gone and would never return.” (C6)
  • “Growing up means growing away, and everyone is eager to begin the work. It is only half way that one begins to look back, and by then it is already too late.” (C 11)
  • “It was as if from that moment on the she decided to take me seriously, at no cost to herself. The cost, she determined, would be all mine.” (C13) 
There are some wonderful pathetic fallacies and metaphors:
  • “I remember being dazzled by the many cut glass mirrors and decanters in her tiny over-furnished sitting-room, but not too dazzled to notice a fine bloom of dust. Vinnie herself had something of the same glitter and dustiness.” (C3)
  • “When I went into the kitchen with the food I took over, I could smell stale dusters and dishcloths, hear the tap dripping into the new red plastic basin I had bought her, see that the clock had stopped, that she had not replaced last year's calendar, which still showed September, under a reproduction of Canaletto's Warwick Castle.” (C7)
  • “A powdery tear, like a very small pearl, made its way down her cheek, leaving no identifiable trace behind.” (C12)
More brilliant lines:
  • “Widowhood does not exactly increase the number of things one has to talk about.” (C1)
  • “She lived on omelettes and whisky, maintaining that she liked neither, and appeared none the worse for it.” (C1)
  • “Father was too amiable to feel desire: what he wanted was an easy life, without challenges or impossible dreams” (C2)
  • “It is inherent in the organism to want to endure for as long as possible, even for ever, so that one becomes willing to take on all the mishaps, all the tragedies, if they are the price to be paid.” (C2)
  • “Now I see that it is sometimes necessary to meet withdrawal with withdrawal, dismissal with dismissal.” (C4)
  • “The sight of an abandoned plate containing a biscuit from which a minute bite had been taken, as if by a child, and which my mother had felt unable to finish, affected me inordinately. ... It was her last meal.” (C7)
  • “I had not known in that it is not necessary to marry every man one loves. I know it now. Now I realize that it is marriage which is the great temptation for a woman, and that one can, and perhaps should, resist it.” (C7)
  • “It was my duty now to be obscure and self-sufficient, as befits all widows.” (C8)
  • “Adultery is not noble. Adulterous lovers are not allowed to be star-crossed. Anna Karenina and Emma Bovary are not really heroines. Even when there is real love, authentic love, it is not the sort in which one rejoices.” (C9)
  • “That night I began a long training in duplicity, in calculation, in almost continuous discomfort, but also in confidence and expectation and effectiveness.” (C9)
  • “She had no idea of what made a book good or bad but judged it by the actions it contained in the first and last chapters.” ( C10)
  • “So solipsistic was Julia that it would not occur to her to wonder what he did when he was not with her.” (C 11)
  • “There is no appropriate attitude for a bereaved mistress, although she is spared the Job's comforters who attend the wife. The best thing she can do, or if not the best then certainly the most expedient, is to turn into one such comforter herself, aware of the hypocrisy involved, finding some relief in the savage alienation she feels.” (C12)
  • “Rage is better than grief, especially when no atonement is possible.” (C12)
  • “Why did she, without doing anything for anyone, inspire such devotion, while humbler, clumsier people like myself seemed doomed to do without?” (C12)
  • “Respectability is as much as can be hoped for; there is no woman so respectable as the one who has rediscovered virtue.” (C12)
  • “She was like one of those very early martyrs who cheerfully embraced their doom in the Colosseum without ever tasting the alternative.” (C12)
  • “I was free now, free of encumbrances, free of hope, that greatest of all encumbrances.” (C15)
  • “The old law, the commandment to go forth and multiply, was still the best, the only one that could stand the test of time. But for those who had not obeyed the commandment, or had mismanaged it, there was little on offer.” (C16)
At the end Fay, once a singer, remembers the songs she sung when she was young: “Though the words are affirmative the melodies are in a minor key, and sadder than they know. I could not sing them now. I know too much of this cruel world to sing them with the touching faith of yesterday.” (C17)

Heart-breaking.

This is a beautifully written book but it is so depressing.

Anita Brookner has also written:

  • Hotel du Lac which won the Booker Prize in 1984 which I found brilliant
  • Family and Other Friends which is another book in which lives are viewed but the narrator in this book is impersonal, an outsider looking at the family photograph album

April 2019; 217 pages


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