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[433] Latecomers – Anita Brookner

” 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. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

[398] The Rules of Engagement – Anita Brookner

” All my life, it seemed, I had longed for direct engagement, for total intimacy, and had encountered only once, in the least poetic of settings, in a rented flat of no great amenity, which nevertheless held the secret which had at least been revealed to me. However shabby, however second-rate, however deplorable in the eyes of the world those encounters could, with hindsight, be seen to have been, they had answered my most profound need, and in themselves had proved sustaining enough to remain the standard by which all other attachments had to be measured. ” (14,210)

No one is more keen on the interior revelations of the human heart than Anita Brookner, who has a knack for exposing an introspective mind with unrelenting eloquence. Seen through the eyes of fifty-something-year-old Elizabeth, a widow who lives comfortably off her husband’s legacy but is “still processing the past” (16,240) that has not left her, The Rules of Engagement chronicles the often devastating choices two women make as they age.

Elizabeth and Betsy had been school friends in 1950 London. They were drawn together by fluke since their mismatched childhoods do not warrant a close friendship. Elizabeth is prudent and introspective, values social propriety; Betsy, raised by a spinster aunt, is open, trusting, and desperate for affection. They reconnect late in life—Elizabeth a married woman whose husband is 27 years her senior and Betsy, single and searching, sporting a Parisian allure and living like a Bohemian life coveted by her friend.

Now it seemed to me that such endings were fanciful, that in fact there were no endings to human affairs, particularly not to affairs of the heart. One’s sad longings might be, and usually were, unsatisfied, so that if one were lucky they merely receded, but remained subject to conjecture. (8,118)

Elizabeth has married Digby for avuncular affection because her parents did not get on when she was a teenager. Digby, mature and loyal, becomes an extension of parenthood and guardianship that her father relinquished without regret. Sobriety and mutual fidelity of the marriage do not perpetuate, at least not on her part, as she becomes discontent with her unresolved, unfulfilled life. Although she’s never deluded as to believe that Edmund, a friend of her husband, is in love with her, because what emotion this sort of liaison could contain has to be rigorously controlled for the affair to be pleasurable, she does long for emotional attachment that is unrequited.

Only the satisfaction of desire, the confidence of shared pleasure, can mitigate the inevitable suspicions and dissatisfactions that come to the surface between opportunities for meeting. (7,94)

When Betsy follows her friend’s footsteps to be a mistress, plummeting into a dangerous territory that will doom her (for she is ready to place her entire life at a married man’s disposal), Elizabeth realizes a breach has opened in their friendship. They can no longer claim to the friendship which has survived earlier vicissitudes. Gone is the mutual candidness on which their friendship was based, which is now tainted by imprudence and artifice, as reluctance blossoms into calculated silence, weighing how much shall be disclosed. The Rules of Engagement requires a punctilio in reading to appreciate its delicacy and tedium. It conveys not much of a story but an essence of two lives that, over the years, honed by circumstances, converge at a curious intersection (which I would not reveal). This further entails a withholding, for there are secrets not to be broached. The introspective narrative follows all manner of rules: loneliness, pursuit for love, adultery, and isolation. There is strange beauty of the women’s abandonment, their dissolved conscience sparkling sympathy for a life unfulfilled. The best part is how Brookner captures the dynamics of adulterous affair, pinpointing the moral confusion and hypocrisy that even physical infidelity doesn’t constitute infidelity so long as there is no exchange of feeling. Ironically, this pursuit of love is exactly what women do at the expense of falling deep.

273 pp. Vintage Contemporaries softcover. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

Anita Brookner Celebration

I have always enjoyed Anita Brookner’s contemplative writing and intricate character studies. Recently I finished Fraud, one of the best I’ve read. Thomas at My Porch has informed me about International Anita Brookner Day on July 11.

The next three Brookner books lined up are Undue Influence, The Rules of Engagement, and Strangers.

Thomas doesn’t ask for big commitment. Just read at least one Anita Brookner novel between now and July 16th. Then either go to his blog on July 16th to tell him what you thought of the book you read or post a link to your review or other Brookner-related post.

Brookner published her first novel, A Start In Life, in 1981 at the age of 53. Since then she has published a novel approximately every year. Her fourth book, Hotel du Lac, published in 1984, won the Booker Prize.

Brookner is highly regarded as a stylist. Her novels, which have been heavily influenced by personal experience, explore themes of emotional loss and difficulties associated with fitting into English society and typically depict intellectual, middle-class women, who suffer isolation and disappointments in love.

[123] Hotel Du Lac – Anita Brookner

“And now, paradoxically, in the blessed silence and dimness of her room, Editch felt her own fatigue dissolve, and the underlying unease, of which she had been intermittently aware during the writing of her letter, began to stir, to increase, to take over… The careful pretence of her days here, the almost successful tenor of this artificial and meaningless life which had been decreed for her own good by others who had no real understanding of what her own good was, suddenly appeared to her in all their futility.” (116)

dulac.jpgThe harrowing circumstances that lead Edith Hope to the sequestered Hotel Du Lac, somewhat of a sanctuary that has conquered human mishap and accidents, are not clear at the beginning. Suspense as to her reason for being there mounts as the prose gracefully details the air of discretion and tranquility of this lakeside resort, whose sparse amenities attract few visitors. Edith is a writer whose life begins to resemble the plots of her romance novels–she is plagued by relationship drama. After an outright embarrassing incident that subverts her friends’ opinion of her, condemned out of hand, she is inevitably subjected to a brief exile until she comes to her senses and makes decent repair to society for the outrage she has perpetrated.

Hoping to bask in the engulfing silence and working on a new book, she instead meets an assortment of love’s casualties and exiles. They are aggrieved women at strange juncture in their life who put up a tranquil confidence and polite aloofness so not to betray their anguish. Bits of their life are slowly revealed as they outstay their welcome toward the end of season and have no choice but to mingle with one another for company. Mrs. Pusey is an old widow who has a whim for shopping anything of the finest quality. She has a sense of assurance that occludes any attempt to introduce an opinion to her. No wonder her daughter Jennifer, who accompanies her, has yet to be married. Monica (the svelte lady with a dog), who is on an ultimatum with her husband that she has to bear a child or he will seek other arrangement. Edith notes a breakdown in her behind those giant dark glasses–bereavement. Mme. de Bonneuil is left alone in the hotel because her son considers her manner too rustic to be allowed to live under the same roof as his wife. Edith herself ruefully reflects upon her affair with David Simmonds, a married man who is the root of her emotional turbulence.

Fed up with all the emotional investment and unrequited love that torture herself and the souls gathering at the hotel, at the solicitous pursuit of a worldly man who coaxes her to unleash the capacity of mischief and pleasure, she entertains the possibility of a partnership based on esteem and not love. Snagged by her conscience, she searches her heart through the undiagnosed feelings, and asks if a liaison free of any romantic expectations and feelings would bring her happiness. The journey coming to terms with her spiritual depth really glorifies the theme of hope in time of despair. I’m not in a position to judge the form of partnership (open relationship, no-strings-attached relationship) but am glad that Edith makes the decision she does, after a twist.

I love the sheer beauty of the prose and its grace of style. Much of the prose focuses on creating that sulking atmosphere that hovers over these characters. The seriousness of their respective predicaments in life has not only been material for satire, ridicule, and amusement among themselves, but also makes me aware that love does come with a price–courage and conviction.

Secret

This passage sends a chill down my spine. It so hits home and I’m bowled over. We all have a secret, darker side of us that we nourish under the skin. Friends might vaguely perceive such existence but out of honor for discretion, they remain tight-lipped. You know they must be acutely aware of this pregnant silence when casual conversations hit a forgotten nerve. Once again from Anita Brookner’s Hotel Du Lac:

“Let me see if I can imagine what your life is like … You go to drinks parties and dinner parties and publishers’ parties. You do not really enjoy any of this. Although people are glad to see you, you lack companions of first resort. You come home alone. You are fussy about your house. You have had lovers but not half as many as your friends have had; they, of course, credit you with none at all and worry about you rather ostentatiously. You are aware of this. And yet you have a secret life, Edith. Although only too obviously incorruptible, you are not what you seem.” (163)

Especially that last sentence, you are not what you seem, that was exactly what one of my classmates wrote on my yearbook in high school. (Well, I wasn’t out yet.) Not so much that I have a secret life or double personality as I sustain a certain public image of myself. I’m not the sort of guys who are constant object of scandal or desire, who boast of their conquests and their performance, but I do get flattered by attention and pursuits. My friends always rebuke me for “not getting myself out there,” which I interpret as laying my hands on the bar counter and asking the guy next to me what he has plan for the night. I don’t want to lose all for love, but at least there should be mutual respect in the form of monogamy. My friends who do worry about me ostentatiously (which I find very facetious) simply think that modesty and merit are very poor cards to hold. They believe and try to imbue in me a kind of partnership of the most enlightened kind–one based on esteem. Does that justify an open relationship? You’re involved with someone based on this “esteem” and then meet up with another in a civilized manner. I don’t know. Maybe I take everything too seriously that I cannot disentangle from the fear of partings and hurt. In another passage from the same book, Edith fantasizes a simple life of routine–reading and writing in a hot garden (yes, I like hot tropical weather too) all day, waiting for the special someone to come home to her, the same person, every evening, under the seal of love. May I also wish that he will cuddle up with me to sleep so I can share his bodily warmth? *g*

Somnambulism

I wish to share a passage from Hotel Du Lac that rings some truth at least for me as a fiction lover. I ponder at it this morning over coffee, against the boisterous symphony of the rain, which came down hard in sheets like a squall and impinged upon the window of the cafe.

“Embroiled in her fictional plot, the main purpose of which was to distance those all too real circumstances over which she could exert on control, she felt a weariness that seemed to preclude any enthusiasm, any initiative, any relaxation. Fiction, the time-honoured resource of the ill-at-ease, would have to come to her aid, but the choice of a book presented some difficulties, since when she was writing she could only read something she had read before, and in her exhausted state, a febrile agitation, invisible to the naked eye, tended to distance even the very familiar.” (66)

I read for comfort, letting the book extract me from reality of my world to the author’s realm, which is a temporary refuge of all the daily circumstances that demand of me. Reading world/translated literature is like traveling, in which I can choose the desirable destinations. Drowning in unfamiliar settings of books delivers the same kind of curious sensation of traveling to a new country. The more unfamiliar the better–as if knowing the place the book describes too well might give me presence some reality and validity. That is the reason for digging books that set in Tibet (Seven Years in Tibet and Lost Horizon), Egypt (The Egyptian), and off-the-beaten-path places like the Sahara. These foreign terrains and landscape possess that power to snap me out of my element, and that is, when I look straight ahead at some distant focal point without actually seeing things. Because I’m off to a somnambulent journey. What is your comfort read? How is it comforting you?