” Now that Toto was so rarely in England, Fibich would have found the days long without his scrupulous routines, and in the office both he and Hartmann were able to recapture the essence of their friendship before the advent of wives and children had cemented the two families into one dissoluble unit. ” (15:241)
Readers who are familiar with Brookner’s novels would find Latecomers a diversion from her usual feminine consciousness in narrative. With such serenity in the prose she manages to tell a story, or rather, portrayal in snapshots of two friends who met at a fateful moment in history and grow old together.
Separated from their families in Nazi Germany, Hartmann and Fibich were smuggled to England, where they attended boarding school. Although Hartmann, five years older, is the more ebullient of the two, “had it not been for the accident of being paired with Fibich, he would have died or killed himself.” (1:6)
Maybe it’s only the knowledge that someone else’s experience reflects his own reality saves Hartmann. But they are destined to be inseparable although their temperaments are diametrically opposed. Hartmann is blessed with the ability to live in the present. Hedonistic, kindly, cheerful, and enterprising, he never cares for his past. Together with Fibich he enters the greeting business from which he makes a fortune. Fibich is haunted by a past he cannot remember. He feels troubled that Hartmann has taken over the direction of his life—and that he hasn’t lived his own because a big part is missing. So anxious and brooding that he pines for returning to Berlin in order to revive his childhood memories.
Their early experiences had given them the identity they needed, and as long as they stayed together this identity became more reassuring, so that in middle age they seemed to have as substantial a life as anyone else of their acquaintance. And it had to be said that Hartmann’s sunny and insouciant attitude was marvellously attractive to have around, and that it pressured Fibich from his worst excesses of melancholy. The melancholy was still there, of course,and it was never to disappear. (3:42)
Their marriages and parenthood only reinforce the bond established since adolescence. Despite worries for the daughter and a son, they live manageably within the confine of small routines. Their lives are as different in temperaments as they are: Yvette is vain and egotistic, and Christine modest and self-effacing. Together they become one family, and free of any clashes in opinions. Latecomers explores the ambiguous pleasures of friendship and domesticity. At every stage of life the book emphasizes the texture of time’s passage despite a major flaw on Yvette’s age. It’s an inexcusable anachronism that makes her a married woman at age 5 and a mother at 7. Brookner does take her time furnishing details of their lives—lives that survive horror of adolescence caught in the tide of history and eventually arrive in full possession. Brookner’s keen eyes never leave the innermost details of these people, and even the most die-hard fan of character-study novel could find her delineation hard-going occasionally.
248 pp. Trade Paperback. [
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