Brief Lives by Anita Brookner

Wikipedia says that Anita Brookner’s “novels explore themes of emotional loss and difficulties associated with fitting into society, and typically depict intellectual, middle-class women, who suffer isolation and disappointments in love.” That’s certainly true of this novel—and, I fear, true of her own life. Having published her first novel aged 53 she published a novel a year until 2009, surely too many novels.

I read Hotel du Lac years ago and remember only the stillness. I came to read Brief Lives because of the flurry of publicity that surrounded Brookner’s death in March. That’s peculiarly apt in that the novel begins with Fay, the narrator, reading the obituary of Julia, the other main character of the book; and the book ends with Fay imaging a conversation about how her death was– “Not all that bad…You ought to give it a try one of these days.”  These two women come together because of their husbands, both of whom are failures as husbands in different ways, and are then locked together for life despite not liking each other at all.

This is a book about women, and like all the books I am currently reading by women (Howard, Bowen, Brookner) seems to be about the failure, or at least fragility, of their relationships. Fay says in the novel: “I was not given to speculating about other people’s emotional lives. I assumed that they were all like mine: faulty.” Do most relationships seem like failures to most women? I fear they might. (Tell me if you’re a woman.)

Almost nothing happens in the book, which spans the lives of the two main characters, but I was engrossed—partly because the style is so exact, crystalline. Julia is described as “acid, heartless, virginal,” which I thought wonderful; it made me think about BMJ Confidential where people are asked to summarise their character in three words–“acid, heartless, virginal,” would be so arresting. Although I’ve declined to appear in BMJ Confidential, thinking it too incestuous, I’ve thought about my three words and settled provisionally on “curious, energetic, frivolous.”

Here are the quotes I mined from the book, a goodly haul:

I see if a woman has it in mind to bring a man to heel she may have to play a part which runs counter to her own instincts, unless her instincts are those of an aggressor…

Growing old is so meaningless when there are no young people to watch.

I know now that inside every one of us there is another self, wistful, wary, uncertain, but also cruel and subversive, a stranger who can respond to any suggestion, any impulse, whether wise or unwise, though it is usually the latter.

It [the capacity of women to exclude men] is a resource which can outlive its usefulness, as alliances are made and broken, and jealousies begin to peak.

Women in such a situation [isolated from men] will unite in deploring the childishness of men, their deceptions, and their frivolity.

I was not given to speculating about other people’s emotional lives. I assumed that they were all like mine: faulty.

Love is not the awesome prize I once thought it was but a much more daily commodity, penny plain rather than tuppence coloured. But I suppose that women throughout the ages have felt dissatisfied with what is available, the friendlier varieties of love which are natural to the human race, and have broken their hearts and suffered mightily for unsuitable partnerships which were never meant to be consummated.

Julia was essentially a creature of insinuation, the eyelids lowered and then flying open, request and accusation mingling, retribution to follow.

I had no time for her tragic attitudes, for I knew that whatever pain she felt was always confined to her own preoccupations.

Sometimes it only wants a little whisper of approbation to set one on one’s way.

Adultery is not noble. Adulterous lovers are not allowed to be star-crossed. Anna Karenina and Emma Bovary are not realy heroines. Even when there is real love, authentic love, it is not the sort in which one rejoices. That night I began a long training in duplicity, in calculation, in almost continuous discomfort, but also in confidence and expectation and effectiveness. Year did not diminish any of these feelings: they continued my apprenticeship.

I was free now, free of all encumbrances, free of hope that greatest of all encumbrances.

I had graduated in an academy where words were used as a disguise and where the whole object was to divine the unspoken intention.

One returns to the company of women when any blow falls, when the limp in the breast or the unexplained smear of blood are discovered, when the threats which are peculiar to a woman’s life come uncomfortably close.

Nothing is straightforward in this life, however ardently on desires it, the one true outcome.

Underneath all experience lurks the child’s bewilderment.

And this despite her death, which I read about in last Monday’s Times. So irrelevant did her death seem that I almost looked forward to discussing with her, felt something like a quickening of interest. “What was it like?” I should have asked. They eyelids would have come down again as she considered. “Not all that bad,” I can hear her say, in her most famously throw-away tone. “You ought to give it a try one of these days.”


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